Alcoholism and alcohol abuse cost the nation as much as $117 billion a year in lost productivity and medical bills, an anti-alcoholism conference convened by Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen was told yesterday.
Thomas R. Burke, Bowen's chief of staff, noted that the figure is more than five times as high as the $23 billion that the Reagan administration and Congress must trim from the fiscal 1988 deficit to avert automatic spending cuts provided for in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget law.
"Much of this comes out of the Treasury in one way or another," Burke said in a speech at the conference here. "I'm talking about Medicaid payments, health-care payments, family-support payments, funds for the homeless and the like."
Burke said $92.8 billion of the total cost "represents products, goods and services never produced, never delivered" because of alcohol-related problems.
"These hidden costs represent the economic stagnation caused by reduced productivity, premature loss of life, employment lost by victims of alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes and incarceration of criminals," he said.
About $15 billion of the total is for direct medical costs, according to the HHS. The rest is for various indirect and social welfare costs.
Bowen convened the meeting to launch several projects, including speedier transfer of research findings to treatment programs, more clinical training, new public assistance and employe assistance programs, advertising programs and possible health warnings on alcoholic beverage containers.
Enoch Gordis, director of HHS' National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said in an interview that the $117 billion figure was computed for 1983 by the Research Triangle Institute of North Carolina.
Lost productivity includes loss due to premature death or illness of workers as a result of alcohol, financial impact on labor benefit plans and added costs of courts, police work and the like.
"Direct medical costs for the treatment of alcoholism are tiny," Gordis said. "The big medical costs involve complications, the diseases associated with alcoholism, cirrhosis of the liver -- mostly alcohol-related, 90 to 95 percent of the time. Brain damage, cardiac problems, stroke, pancreatitis, highway accidents."
Gordis said about 18 million adults have alcohol-related problems. About 10.6 million are alcoholics and another 7 million to 8 million are alcohol abusers, he said.
Bowen, in remarks Thursday, said, "Nearly 5 million adolescents, or three in every 10, have problems with alcohol."
An HHS fact sheet said average per capita consumption of alcohol was 2.65 gallons in 1984, the third consecutive annual decrease. This figure represents only the amount of alcohol in beverages consumed. Nearly half of it is consumed by the 6.5 percent of all adults who are heavy drinkers, it said.
Alcohol is a factor in nearly half of accidental deaths, suicides and homicides, including 42 percent of motor vehicle accident deaths, HHS said.