Claims of 1,800+ Deaths from Binge Drinking Is Wrong, WaPo Fact Checker Says

Chronicle of Higher Education, PBS recently reported alcohol stat Post Fact Checker gives three Pinocchios.

Media outlets and politicians often fall for junk science and misleading statistics. This happened recently with alcohol-related death statistics, which The Washington Post exposed as factually incorrect.

Post reporter Glenn Kessler writes the newspaper’s Fact Checker column. He debunked the claim that more than 1,800 college students die from “alcohol-related causes” or “alcohol poisoning” every year, in a Jan. 15, piece. In fact, he gave the claim three out of four “Pinocchios” which meant the claim was a“[s]ignificant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.”

Kessler said that media outlets (including the Post) and politicians had used the statistic incorrectly and failed to realize the number was “not an especially precise estimate.” He argued that the actual number of deaths directly caused by binge drinking “appears to be in the dozens,” and that the media needed to be “more cautious” about saying that alcohol had caused 1,825 deaths.

Both The Chronicle of Higher Education and PBS “NewsHour” used that figure in recent reports.

Lisa Hawkins, Vice President of Public Affairs at the Distilled Spirits Council, told MRC Business, "Glenn Kessler is to be commended for digging into this data. While any alcohol-related death is tragic, skewing government statistics is outrageous.  Unfortunately, this has become an increasing problem in the alcohol-research field where ‘studies’ are being driven more by advocacy than science. When left unchallenged, this advocacy research is perpetuated by the media and becomes the basis for misguided policy decisions."

According to Kessler, the 1,825 number came from a report released in 2005 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and was “really just an estimate” of all college student deaths where alcohol was even remotely involved. Kessler pointed out the Chronicle of Higher Education used the NIAAA statistic improperly in its Dec. 14, 2014, story available on The New York Times website.

Gwen Ifill, co-anchor and managing editor on PBS’s “NewsHour,” made the same claim during the Dec. 12, 2014, broadcast saying, “More than 1,800 students die each year from alcohol-related incidents.”

The Post had even repeated the questionable statistic on Feb. 5, 2014, claiming that heavy drinking “causes more than 1,800 alcohol-related deaths of college students each year in the United States.”

According to Kessler, most news stories failed to acknowledge the “limitations” of the statistic. Researchers at NIAAA did not calculate the number of deaths directly caused by drinking, nor did they reference any documented cases of alcohol poisoning.

“Instead, about three-quarters of the deaths are related to motor-vehicle crashes; the rest are from non-traffic deaths, such as fires, falls, drownings and so forth,” Kessler said.

Furthermore, the number was not based on real-life cases of drunken college students, but merely an estimate projected from other government data on the number of accidents involving 18-year-olds through 24-year-olds who had consumed any level of alcohol. Researchers had no idea whether alcohol had actually caused the fatal accidents across the country, or whether the victims were even college students, according to Kessler.

Even though the number of deaths rose in each edition of NIAAA’s report, this was mainly because the rate of college attendance had gone up, not because college drinking had necessarily increased.

“Thus, even though the number appears so precise (1,442, 1,647 and now 1,825 deaths), it’s really just an estimate; there’s no way of knowing if that many college students died while under the influence of alcohol,” Kessler said.

This was not the first time NIAAA has published misleading information. NIAAA published a study in March 2014, which claimed that the number of alcohol related deaths has been vastly under-reported. Yet the correct number was already being used and widely reported by news outlets. Rather than criticize the irrelevancy of NIAAA’s report, CBS News repeated its findings in an online article March 24, 2014, as did a local Washington D.C. CBS affiliate.