01:11pm Saturday 21 September 2019

U of M experts weigh in on how to safely consume alcohol; spot and treat alcohol addiction

As holiday parties continue to ramp up this season, so will the number of opportunities to consume alcohol. While most adults over the age of 21 have a general idea of how to safely consume, holidays can pose a greater risk to overindulge.

The following University of Minnesota experts are available to comment on this topic:

How to safely consume alcohol

Robert Levy, M.D., assistant professor, U of M Medical School Department of Family Medicine and Community Health

Levy says the dangers with alcohol come when you’ve consumed more than you’ve intended or more than you’re aware of. So, if you’re heading out for a social gathering, Levy recommends a number of precautions to take to promote safe consumption.

According to Levy, the easiest way to minimize the risk of overconsumption of alcohol is to keep track of the number of drinks consumed.

“In general, depending on a person’s muscle mass, men will metabolize about one drink per hour, and women will metabolize about ¾ a drink per hour,” said Levy. “So if you’re an average-sized male and you’ve only had two drinks over the course of two hours, you’re probably safe to drive. But if you’ve had any more than that you’re liable to be over the legal limit.”

Levy offers the following tips on how to safely consume alcohol:

  • Be cognizant of where you’re getting drinks. Never take a drink if it is handed to you by a stranger, and don’t continue drinking your beverage if it tastes funny.
  • Beware of the myth of alternating alcoholic beverages with water. The reality is that nothing—not even food, water or coffee—can speed the process of lowering one’s blood alcohol level. If you’ve had three alcoholic drinks and three glasses of water in one hour, that isn’t going to change how much alcohol is in your system.
  • If you’re taking a prescription medication, ask your doctor if it is safe to drink. Certain prescribed medications may interfere with alcohol once it enters your body.
  • If you’re planning on overconsuming, plan a safe ride home. Designated drivers save lives, so arrange to either get a taxicab or have a sober driver pick you up.

Spotting and treating alcohol addiction

Overconsuming alcohol poses many risks and dangers, and one of the biggest is alcohol addiction. Like any other addiction, alcohol addiction is a neuro-chemical disease of the brain that has manifested itself both psychologically and also physically. Between 6 and 10 percent of people will struggle with alcoholic behavior in their lifetimes.

If you or someone you know is concerned that a friend or family member may have a drinking problem, Levy points to a few signs to look for in his/her behavior:

  • Lying about how much they’ve consumed
  • Sneaking alcohol or hiding it around the house
  • Missing activities or work due to drinking
  • Building up a tolerance for alcohol
  • Unsuccessfully trying to cut down on alcohol use

There are two primary ways of treating alcoholism: absence therapy and harm reduction therapy. Absence therapy uses a medically supervised detox program to cut alcohol out of everyday use, and harm reduction therapy teaches people not to stop drinking, but to control their consumption.

Levy notes that it is dangerous to stop drinking on your own.

“Quitting without medical support may stimulate symptoms like high blood pressure, seizures, and even death,” said Levy. “If you or someone you know is looking for help, the best approach is to speak with a doctor and figure out a plan that works best for you.”

For those without insurance, Medicaid or Medicare may help cover costs. If not, Levy recommends talking to a doctor at a free clinic; there are medications available that can help with withdrawal and abstinence. Finding free support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs may also be beneficial. 

The dangers of drinking and driving

Steve Simon, clinical professor at the University of Minnesota Law School

Simon founded and directed the Minnesota Criminal Justice System Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) Task Force for 28 years. He has done extensive empirical research on DWI, evaluating different parts of Minnesota’s DWI laws to determine what works and what doesn’t. Simon answered questions about DWI and the harsh consequences impaired drivers face.

Why do DWI and domestic assault arrests rise during the holidays?

DWI arrests increase during the holidays because of increased enforcement by local law enforcement agencies and the State Patrol. Alcohol use outside the home does increase during the holidays because of the office holiday parties and family gatherings. Domestic assaults increase because people are drinking more during the holidays, Holidays are stressful and people have more time at home because of being off work.

What are the legal implications for individuals?

The reason why law enforcement is concerned with alcohol-impaired drivers is that they have a significantly increased risk of being in a crash. More DWI crashes resulting in injury occur on rural roads at night. If you are involved in a crash in an urban area you have 1 in 367 chance of dying, whereas crashes in a rural area leave you at a 1 in 66 chance of dying.

Alcohol-impaired drivers are also less likely to wear seatbelts. If you are involved in an alcohol-related crash and sustain a brain injury, the injury will be more severe, you will take longer to recover and will not recover to the same extent compared to brain injury where alcohol was not involved.

Alcohol-impaired individuals have a greater chance of being in a crash because they lose their peripheral vision. As the alcohol level increases, their glare response time degrades, which means it takes significantly longer for their pupils to dilate after constricting when oncoming headlights shine in their eyes.

It takes longer for your brain to process information and to make a decision after seeing a car changing lanes or a pedestrian entering the street.

A DWI incident, apart from the increased risk of being in a crash, includes:

  1. A license revocation for a period of 30 days to one year for a first offense
  2. License reinstatement fees of close to $700
  3. A criminal conviction for DWI on your driving record, which will seriously affect your insurance rates
  4. The costs associated with a criminal charge of DWI include the costs of the tow of your vehicle, attorney fees between $700 and $2,00 and for a first offense and fines of up to $1,000
  5. The penalty for repeat DWI incidents increases, with the fourth one in 10 years becoming a felony

Levy is available for media interviews Thursday, Dec. 15, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. To schedule an interview, contact Emily Jensen, (612) 624-9163, jense888@umn.edu, or Kelly O’Connor, (612) 624-5680, oconn246@umn.edu.

To schedule an interview with Simon, contact Jeff Falk, (612) 626-1720

Contacts: Kelly O’Connor, Academic Health Center, oconn246@umn.edu, (612) 624-5680
Emily Jensen, Academic Health Center, jense888@umn.edu, (612) 624-9163
Jeff Falk, University News Service, jfalk@umn.edu, (612) 626-1720

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