SALT LAKE CITY — A new Utah Department of Health report says a significantly smaller percentage of Utahns drink alcohol compared to the rest of the country, but among those who do, binge drinking is a far-reaching problem that contributes to hundreds of deaths per year in the state.

Just 31.7 percent of all Utah adults reported having consumed alcohol in the past 30 days, compared to 53.5 percent of Americans, according to a far-reaching poll conducted in 2016 in the Beehive State and nationwide called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

"Our overall rates … (are) much lower than the national average," Anna Buckner, alcohol epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health, told the Deseret News. "That's partly due to the culture we have here, and that we have such strong alcohol policies in place that kind of discourage against those excessive alcohol use behaviors."

However, Buckner warned, "we need to remember to keep the issue at the public health front, because it is impacting a lot of people."

The survey found 39.9 percent of Utah's drinkers participate in binge drinking — defined as a man having five or more drinks on one occasion, or a woman having four or more — compared to 31.4 percent nationally.

Additionally, those Utahns reported participating in a higher-than-average number of binge episodes and consuming a higher number of drinks during those episodes compared to national numbers, the report states.

"While we have a lower overall population that drinks, of the population that does (binge) drink, they do so with higher intensity and frequency, so that impacts the harm," Buckner said.

Just 10 percent of binge drinkers nationally are considered alcoholics, but even on an episodic basis, the behavior is "associated with poor health-related quality of life," according to the new Utah Department of Health report.

"A lot of people just think of it as a smaller issue, or may not recognize their own (binge) drinking behavior could put them at risk. Even if you're only occasionally engaged in these behaviors, you're still putting yourself at risk for a variety of things," Buckner said, including violence, accidental injuries and illnesses.

The report, released Thursday, relies heavily on responses to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, for which about 10,000 Utah adults were surveyed by phone in 2016, but also uses other information sources from previous years.

Out of all respondents, 12.5 percent said they participated in binge drinking within the previous 30 days — a rate that has changed relatively little in Utah since 2009.

Even if you're only occasionally engaged in these behaviors, you're still putting yourself at risk for a variety of things. – Anna Buckner, alcohol epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health

The health department also extrapolated Utah mortality data from 2011 to 2015 to estimate that alcohol annually "contributes to" 130 suicides in the state and 83 deaths from vehicle crashes. Alcohol also causes an estimated 116 deaths in Utah directly from alcoholic liver disease and 58 deaths due to alcohol dependence syndrome each year, the department's estimates say.

Adding in all other "alcohol-attributable causes" pushes the total associated deaths to about 700 per year, according to the report.

"Each year, (we estimate) almost 300 Utahns died from chronic alcohol-attributable causes and more than 400 died from acute alcohol-attributable causes," it says.

In 2014, state data indicated there were about 5,400 emergency room visits related directly to alcohol use, and 3,100 hospitalizations. However, those numbers only account for patient cases in which alcohol itself was causing the health problem, rather than inciting behavior that led to a medical emergency, Buckner said.

"It's an underestimate, but it still shows the impacts that are happening," she said, and also indicates a significant rise in such visits in the past decade.

The report also briefly describes the economic toll of "excessive alcohol use," which includes any drinking by those who are underage or pregnant, binge drinking and heavy drinking — defined as 15 or more drinks for a man or eight or more drinks for a woman per week.

Such an economic drain includes lost work productivity, more burdensome health care costs for patients, criminal justice costs and property damage, Buckner said.

"In 2014, the cost of excessive alcohol use in Utah was estimated to be $1.2 billion," the report says.

In the 2016 behavioral risk survey, 16 percent of Utah respondents who did not graduate high school said they participated in binge drinking in the past 30 days, while exactly half that proportion of college graduates — 8 percent — said the same.

In the United State generally, the difference is the opposite, with college graduates disproportionately binge drinking compared to those with less education, Buckner said.

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Utah men were also about twice as likely to binge drink compared to women, 16.7 percent to 8.3 percent, a finding Buckner said was unsurprising considering prior results both in the state and nationwide.

Younger age groups were also more likely to binge drink, with 18.4 percent of 18- to 34-year-old Utahns engaging in the behavior in contrast with 13.7 percent of survey respondents 35 to 49 years old, 8.7 percent of those 50 to 64, and 1.7 percent of those 65 and older.

Citing a separate state study, called the Utah Prevention Needs Assessment Survey, Thursday's report says that in 2017, 5.5 percent of surveyed Utah youth in grades eight, 10 and 12 reported they recently participated in binge drinking.

Identifying key demographic data helps "identify communities at greatest risk of negative health outcomes … to guide prevention and policy efforts," Buckner said in a statement.

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