— By Ryan Boetel —

The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — More people drink themselves to death in northwest New Mexico than anywhere else in the state, which is one of the worst states in the country in terms of alcohol-related deaths per capita.

Three counties in northwest New Mexico — San Juan, McKinley and Rio Arriba — have the highest concentration in the state of people who died from various alcohol-related issues from 2007 through 2009, according to reports recently published by the New Mexico Health Department

New Mexico has been one of the top three states with the highest alcohol-related death rates per capita every year since 1981, said Joe Roeber, the New Mexico alcohol epidemiologist for the state's health department.

In San Juan County, the three-year, alcohol-related injury death rate was more than double the national average and in McKinley County the rate was more than triple the national average. Examples of alcohol-related injury deaths include deaths from vehicle crashes, falls and suicides.

The detailed reports also show the varying health effects between counties brought on by different drinking habits, Roeber said.

Between 2007 and 2009, 30 people in San Juan County died of alcohol-related injuries, which was significantly higher than the state's rate of alcohol-related injury deaths.

During that same period, 103 people in San Juan County died of alcohol-related chronic diseases, such as liver disease, which was on par with the state rate of alcohol-related chronic disease deaths.

The statistics suggest within San Juan County, binge drinking poses a unique countywide health problem while alcohol dependence rates are similar to statewide rates, Roeber said.

"There are different underlying patterns of heavy drinking in the different counties," Roeber said. "Part of what we're seeing in San Juan County is that high rates of binge drinking leading to high rates of alcohol-related injury death can co-exist with relatively lower rates of heavy drinking and alcohol-related chronic disease death."

McKinley and Rio Arriba counties had the highest number of all forms of alcohol-related deaths. Their rates for alcohol-related chronic disease deaths were more than five times the national average, more evidence of an ongoing epidemic of alcohol-related problems that plague American Indian communities.

The alcohol-related death rates in all three northwest New Mexico counties are comparable to rates on other America Indian reservations and their border towns, Roeber said.

"The rates differ quit dramatically by race and ethnicity," Roeber said. "American Indian death rates are substantially higher than the white rates. ... Those disparities exist nationally and they exist here in New Mexico as well."

One of the most proven ways to reduce binge drinking, according to the Center For Disease Control's website, is to increase the cost of alcohol.

A bill being considered in the New Mexico Legislature would raise the excise tax on alcoholic beverages and mandate the additional revenue goes to substance abuse treatment.

The bill has the support of many local advocates for substance abuse prevention, said Pamela Drake, the executive director of San Juan County Partnership.

"Why wouldn't you want it, it's a users tax," Drake said. "Youth don't buy as much if the cost is more and even adults don't buy as much if the cost is more, so it's a very good strategy."

The excise tax on alcoholic beverages would increase by 50 percent to 140 percent, depending on the beverage. Drake said that increase would bring in more than $1 million to San Juan County annually for substance abuse treatment, and make alcohol less affordable to potential binge drinkers.

"I believe there would be enough people in support of it," Drake said. "Most people are tired of DWI, they are tired of their relatives being killed, they're tired of their friends being killed and we're just sick to death of putting up with it."

Ryan Boetel: rboetel@daily-times.com