A 99 Black Cherry liquor bottle lies in grass along Interstate 25 in Santa Fe County on Wednesday. A panel of lawmakers dedicated much of Wednesday to discussing the number of New Mexicans killed or harmed by alcohol use. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

  • The rate is almost twice the national average, according to federal data shared with legislators Wednesday. The second-place state isn’t even close


SANTA FE – New Mexico has the nation’s worst alcohol-related death rate.

And it isn’t just high: The rate is almost twice the national average, according to federal data shared with legislators Wednesday. The second-place state isn’t even close.

Lawmakers confronted the alarming numbers Wednesday in an all-day hearing dedicated to examining the role of alcohol in crime, disease and death in New Mexico.

No one offered easy solutions. But legislators broached all kinds of ideas, ranging from changes in taxation to tightening the presumed level of intoxication in DWI laws, now set at a blood alcohol level of 0.08%.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat and co-chairman of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, went through a list of people in his life killed by drunken drivers, including his college roommate, as he urged lawmakers to recognize the crisis.

“This is mind numbing to me that we would be double other states,” he said of the death rate. “We’re not just worse, we’re off the charts.”

Some of the numbers shared Wednesday came from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adjusted for age and population, the CDC estimated New Mexico averaged 53 deaths a year attributed to alcohol per 100,000 people in 2011-15.

The national rate was 28 deaths. Only one other state, Alaska, reached even 40 deaths, and its figure was an estimate the CDC warned might not be reliable.

The numbers are based on deaths connected to excessive alcohol use, including binge drinking and chronic health conditions, car crashes and homicide.

Members of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee heard from epidemiologists and others working for the state departments of Health and Public Safety as part of Wednesday’s presentation at the Capitol. The hearing comes as legislators prepare for a 60-day regular session beginning Jan. 17.

They heard an array of troubling statistics about the link between excessive alcohol consumption and incidents of violence, injury and chronic disease. The connections go well beyond driving while intoxicated, according to the testimony before legislators.

Alcohol plays a significant role in suicide, child maltreatment, traffic crashes, injuries caused by firearms and homicide.

Aryan Showers, director of the Office of Policy and Accountability for the Department of Health, said New Mexico’s alcohol trouble goes back decades. It may be a symptom, she said, of other societal ills and not easily fixed simply by more strictly regulating alcohol.

“This is truly a generational problem,” Showers said.

The department, she said, intends to bolster its surveillance and data collection on fetal alcohol syndrome and other alcohol-related problems to give policymakers more information on how to address the issue.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said it’s eye-opening to see the differences in each state’s alcohol laws and culture. He described going to college in Seattle and learning how much more difficult it was to get hard liquor.

“I didn’t realize how much New Mexicans drank until I moved,” Maestas said.

But he noted that lawmakers substantially revised alcohol laws in 2021 with bipartisan support, banning miniatures and making it easier for more restaurants to sell beer and wine.

Alcohol taxation hasn’t changed in years, he said, and the 2021 law could be the start of more changes to how New Mexico regulates alcoholic drinks.

Maestas said it takes time – but isn’t impossible – to change people’s relationship with alcohol. Drunken driving, for example, isn’t socially accepted the way it was decades ago, he said.

State Police Lt. Kurtis Ward said New Mexico still has a drunken driving problem. But there’s been enormous progress, he said, and it’s more difficult now to spot drunken drivers on the road than it used to be.

At one point in his career, Ward said, it wasn’t unusual to find a sober person riding as the passenger in a car operated by a drunken driver. But ride-booking apps and other cultural changes have made a difference.

Aryan Showers, center, director of the Office of Policy and Accountability at the Department of Health, addresses lawmakers Wednesday about New Mexico’s deep-rooted problems with alcohol. Also at the table are Garry Kelley, left, a senior injury epidemiologist for DOH, and Annaliese Mayette, an alcohol epidemiologist at DOH, both of whom helped answer questions from lawmakers. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)








Now he’ll find that “there’s a bunch of drunk people in the car,” Ward said, “but the driver is sober.”

Some lawmakers Wednesday took note of a recent series by New Mexico In Depth, a nonprofit news organization, on the state’s trouble with alcohol. The series, “Blind Drunk,” concluded the state has largely neglected the crisis even as it grows worse.

Lawmakers on Wednesday didn’t embrace any particular solution. Among the ideas that came up were expanding technology in cars to detect alcohol use by the driver; making liquor less available at convenience stores; revising how alcohol is taxed; reducing the 0.08% presumed level of intoxication for blood alcohol content; and improving behavioral health programs.

“It’s an extremely complex problem,” Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said.