At least 354 people died in incidents where they drank too much alcohol on Long Island over the past five years, records show, part of what clinicians call a hidden epidemic of binge-drinking fatalities.
The number of people drinking themselves to death in Nassau and Suffolk counties has reached alarmingly high levels, experts say, even as the region has been beset by a plague of fatal heroin and pain pill overdoses, which killed at least 341 people on Long Island in 2014.
A Newsday analysis of death records from both county medical examiners' offices found that alcohol intoxication killed or contributed to the deaths of dozens of Long Island residents each year, including at least 62 in 2010; 95 in 2011; 94 in 2012; 69 in 2013; and 34 in 2014. Last year's tally has not been finalized and could grow based on pending autopsy results, officials said.
Nationally, an average of six people died daily from alcohol intoxication poisonings between 2010 to 2012, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued in January. The CDC report was the first in 10 years to calculate fatal alcohol poisonings nationwide.
"It is deadly, and we witness a lot of it," said Dr. Anthony Boutin, chairman of the emergency department at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow. "I've seen a tremendous amount of alcohol-related deaths during my career."
The CDC said its data show death from alcohol poisoning is "a bigger problem than previously thought," and called for more effective programs and policies to combat the problem. Currently, most alcohol awareness programs focus on preventing drunken driving and sexual assault, while also highlighting the long-term effects of alcohol, experts said.
Three in four alcohol poisoning deaths nationwide involved adults between 35 and 64 years old, most of whom were white men, the CDC found. The highest death rate occurred among men ages 45 to 54, and non-Hispanic whites accounted for 68 percent of all deaths.
Still, no ethnic group seems untouched by binge-drinking deaths, with people of all races and socioeconomic groups listed among those killed by alcohol on Long Island and nationwide.
"It's a killer," Steven Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, said of alcohol poisoning. "The damage you see from it is everywhere."
Drinking can turn poisonous
Alcohol poisoning can occur when excessive amounts of alcohol are consumed, shutting down vital parts of the brain controlling breathing, heart rate and body temperature.
The leading cause of alcohol poisoning, officials said, is binge drinking, defined as consuming four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men on a single occasion.
Such deaths "are a tragic reminder of the dangers of binge drinking," said Dr. Robert Brewer, who heads the CDC's Alcohol Program and co-authored the January report. "It's important to implement effective programs and policies to prevent binge drinking and the many health and social harms that are related to it."More than 38 million adults in the United States report binge drinking an average of four times per month, and consume an average of eight drinks per binge, according to the CDC. About 90 percent of binge drinkers are not alcoholics, and alcoholism played a role in just one-third of fatal alcohol poisonings, the CDC found.
Victims of an 'epidemic'
Among those New Yorkers killed by alcohol poisoning in recent years were Shana Dowdeswell, 23, of Manhattan, and Matthew Sunshine, 19, of Cold Spring Harbor.
Dowdeswell, an actress who appeared in several "Law & Order" episodes, died after a night of heavy drinking in Greenwich Village bars in December 2012. The 5-foot-2, 115-pound woman's blood alcohol content registered at 0.39, meaning she would have had to consume about 10 drinks in an hour. A dog walker found her unconscious outside her family's Minetta Street home.
The Professional Performing Arts School graduate had played Anne Frank in a production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" at the esteemed Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and also appeared in the 2013 Robert De Niro film "The Big Wedding."
"She was doing amazing things with her life," said her mother, Laurie Dowdeswell of Brooklyn. "I'm devastated every single day she's not here."
Dowdeswell said too many Americans remain unaware that binge drinking kills thousands of otherwise healthy people, old and young, rich and poor, every year.
"It needs to be presented to this country as the epidemic that it is," said Dowdeswell, who has called for New York bar workers to do more to prevent alcohol poisonings. "It's a huge problem that is devastating families, but it's not getting the attention it deserves."
Outside of bars, residences on and near college campuses are some of the most common locations in which people suffer alcohol poisoning, experts said.
Sunshine, a graduate of Cold Spring Harbor High School, died of alcohol intoxication at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, after a night of partying in 2008. Police said Sunshine was taken back to his dorm room and later found dead.
Advocates for stiffer enforcement of alcohol laws on campuses say college administrators, as well as student leaders, must do more to save young lives.
"The alcohol laws have to be enforced," said Matthew's father, Jeffrey Sunshine, 63, of Cold Spring Harbor. Speaking of on-campus binge-drinking incidents, Sunshine said:
"When a student ends up in the hospital for alcohol intoxication, there should be a police investigation, and the people who provided the alcohol should be held accountable."
Two former Northwestern students were charged in connection with the alcohol provided to Matthew Sunshine. One pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of providing alcohol to underage persons, and received court supervision. Charges against the second former student were dismissed after he agreed to cooperate with authorities.
Increased enforcement of alcohol laws would serve as a deterrent to the kind of binge-drinking incidents that led to Sunshine's death, experts said, saving lives not just in bars and on college campuses, but also at private residences, concerts, party halls, and elsewhere.
"Violations of the alcohol laws must not be ignored," Jeffrey Sunshine said.
Powdered alcohol a concern
Christopher Picarella, whose brother Jeff died of alcohol poisoning a little over a decade ago after an all-night house party in Southampton, said the social damage caused by alcohol poisoning should be measured not just by the number of people lost, but also by the scores of devastated families left to grieve them.
"The day we begin to see alcohol as the potential killer that it is, no less risky to take than heroin or painkillers, is the day we will see fewer people losing their lives to it," said Picarella, a former Hauppauge resident who now lives in Orlando, Florida. "But I'm afraid we're not there yet."
There are concerns, too, that alcohol-related deaths could increase if a new product called Palcohol -- a powdered form of alcohol that can be mixed with water and other liquids -- comes to market in New York. It has been approved by federal regulators but is not yet for sale.
At least six states have already passed legislation banning powdered alcohol, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate last month that would make the production, sale and possession of powdered alcohol illegal.
"Whatever form in which you consume alcohol, you need to be aware of the risks," Chassman said. "Otherwise, you see the kind of [fatal poisoning] numbers we're seeing now."