Peter and Laura Lafond had plans.
Their marriage of 22 years had produced a son and a daughter, and Peter and Laura had begun to relish their future together.
In the short term, that meant seeing their daughter off to her senior prom and watching her graduate from high school. In a few years, they looked forward to celebrating their 25th anniversary. Ultimately, they had their sights set on retiring and traveling around the country in a recreational vehicle.
“We were going to grow old together,” said Laura Lafond, 52. “A lot of times, when we would see an old couple running errands or taking a walk, we’d say, ‘That’s going to be us someday.’ We could see ourselves sitting under a tree in the park, taking it easy together.”
At 4:08 p.m. March 15, 2013, as Peter Lafond, 51, was riding his motorcycle to a friend’s house to help with a remodel project, he was struck and killed by a drunken driver, whose level of intoxication was more than twice the legal limit for driving. The Lafonds would never realize their dream of quietly living out their days, enjoying each other’s company.
“In the first six months after he died, there was just so much stuff that he missed,” Laura Lafond said. “He missed our 23rd anniversary in April; Easter; his sister’s birthday; our daughter’s prom and graduation. He missed his mom turning 90 in July.”
Peter Lafond’s life cut short demonstrates a tragic reality: New Mexico is drinking itself to death faster than any other state. But it’s not just on the highways that booze is shortening the lives of New Mexicans at a pace that outstrips the rest of the United States.
A study released June 26 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, titled “Contribution of Excessive Alcohol Consumption to Death and Years of Potential Life Lost in the United States,” paints a grim national picture in which New Mexico stands out as a state in unparalleled crisis.
“New Mexico has very much struggled with alcohol,” said Laura Tomedi, an alcohol epidemiologist for the New Mexico Department of Health. “We’ve led the nation since 1997. We have the highest alcohol-related death rate, and we lead the pack by a pretty fair margin.”
Excessive use of alcohol robbed New Mexicans of 1,570 years of life annually, per 100,000 of population, between 2006 and 2010 — more than any other state, according to the study. Researchers derived the annual years of potential life lost by comparing the ages of people who died due to alcohol-related causes with their life expectancy. New York was lowest, at 564.5l; the national average was 831.6.
New Mexico also experienced more deaths per capita that were attributable to alcohol, 51.2 per 100,000 population, than anywhere else in the country, the study said. Alaska was a distant second at 41.1 per 100,000 population. New Jersey fared best in that category, at 19.1, and the national average was 27.9.
“The power behind the years of potential life lost, when we look at preventable causes of death — alcohol, smoking, obesity — where alcohol stands out is that people die very young, especially of injury,” Tomedi said. “Here in New Mexico, it’s the largest percentage in the nation of young people that we’re losing to alcohol. So that, at least to me, is very moving. When we talk about alcohol-related deaths, there’s this blasé attitude that we’re all going to die of something, but these are young and working-age people that are dying unnecessarily.”
That was the stark picture that the national data painted as well, according to Mandy Stahre, an epidemiologist at the Washington state Department of Health and the report’s lead author.
“It’s the third-leading preventable cause of death, and it’s most prevalent among working-age adults,” Stahre said. “It’s a behavior that is not just limited to certain age groups. The deaths, and the consequences of it, we see across the life span.”
Unlike tobacco use or obesity, which tend to kill later in life, deaths in which alcohol played a role struck a wide age range, from the very young to the very old, and were concentrated somewhere in between. Deaths attributable to alcohol accounted for nearly 1 in 10 deaths nationally among working-age adults, ages 20 to 64, between 2006 and 2010, the study found. In New Mexico, alcohol-related deaths among working-age people accounted for 16.4 percent of all deaths, again the highest proportion in the nation, according to the study.
The national study took into account a wide range of underlying alcohol-related causes of death, everything from liver disease to falls and auto accidents. It determined that deaths from immediate causes, such as crashes, only minimally outnumbered deaths from chronic alcohol-related conditions.
“People assume when we’re talking about alcohol-related deaths that we’re talking about people who are alcoholics, when in fact most of the deaths we’re talking about involve people who aren’t dependent,” Tomedi said.
More often in New Mexico, binge drinking turns deadly.
“In New Mexico, where we really stand out isn’t the habitual side, percentage of problem drinking,” Tomedi said. “Where we stand out is that among people who drink, they drink a lot.”
She identified McKinley County in northwestern New Mexico and Rio Arriba County in the north-central part of the state as particular trouble spots for alcohol-related deaths, but for very different reasons.
“McKinley County has a very polarized alcohol consumption pattern,” Tomedi said. A high percentage of people surveyed there report no alcohol consumption in a given month, but those who do drink reported the highest number of drinks consumed on average compared with the rest of the state.
McKinley County also is home to a large Native American population, one of four groups — along with men, pregnant women and minors — that the Department of Health has identified as particularly vulnerable to alcohol-related health problems.
In Rio Arriba County, alcohol has a hand in the prevalence of heroin overdoses as a cause of death, Tomedi said.
“There’s a strong association between drug overdose and alcohol consumption,” she said. “If someone is using opioids and drinking alcohol at the same time, then their risk of dying is exponentially higher.”
Stahre said access to health care, both primary and acute, as well as public policies affect the rate of alcohol deaths in a particular area.
“States that are rural tend to have more alcohol-related deaths, and that has a lot to do with access to health care,” she said, citing New Jersey, the state the study found had the fewest per-capita alcohol deaths, as an example because of its relatively abundant access to care.
The study recommended the state work to reduce alcohol deaths through practices such as increasing alcohol prices by raising booze taxes, strictly enforcing laws against serving minors and overserving intoxicated customers, and regulating the density of alcohol sellers. These practices have been shown to curtail aggressive drinking and violent crimes driven by intoxication.
In New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration is reviewing ways to regulate concentrated pockets of alcohol sales. It also is encouraging physicians to ask at least a few questions about alcohol consumption during regular visits with patients, Tomedi said.
As an arm of the Martinez administration, however, the Department of Health will not support increasing the alcohol excise tax, she said.
“The Department of Health is an executive agency, and the governor’s statement is that we are not to promote taxes, so the Department of Health doesn’t promote increasing taxes” as a way to help curb alcohol consumption, Tomedi said.
But she said the practice can be effective. “On the list of evidence-based practices that have a real effect on alcohol rates, then yes, increasing alcohol taxes is on that list,” she said.
Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for the governor, said the administration’s efforts to promote education about DWI have been effective, and it remains committed to promoting discussions about alcohol use during doctor visits and limiting the density of establishments that market alcohol. However, he said, raising taxes are not on the agenda.
“Gov. Martinez made a promise to voters not to raise taxes,” Lonergan said.
Ben Lewinger, New Mexico state director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he favors an increased excise tax on alcohol, not only to reduce consumption, but also because the funds currently generated by the tax combat DWI.
A measure to raise excise taxes on alcohol failed last year.
MADD’s frustrations come from both sides of the aisle, Lewinger said. He said the Democrat-controlled Senate has blocked proposals in recent years to impose harsher penalties for DWI.
“It’s going to take some changes, putting aside personal and political differences and figuring out where the rubber meets the road and how we can make a difference by better protecting people in New Mexico,” he said.
Yolanda Briscoe, executive director of the Santa Fe Recovery Center, said solutions could be found closer to home, with families accepting that their loved ones with alcoholism have a disease and need to be steered into treatment.
“If someone has diabetes and doesn’t take their insulin, for instance, there’s a lot of support around that,” she said. “Families, EMTs, everybody recognizes that’s someone who needs care. Alcoholism as a disease needs to overcome that stigma with the people who can make a difference.”
For Laura Lafond, her 22-year-old son and her 19-year-old daughter, the empty chair at the dinner table, not the public policy debate, is at the forefront of their attention, even after 25-year-old Amanda Casaus last month received a 4½-year prison term — too little, in Laura’s eyes — for causing Peter Lafond’s death.
“I have trouble calling this an accident,” Laura Lafond said. “An accident is something that’s not avoidable. She could have prevented the whole thing by not getting in that car, or never drinking that day. Making that decision to drink, it’s not an accident.”
Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.