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Binge drinking killed 354 people on LI over the past 5 years, records show

Shana Dowdeswell, 23, an actress who appeared on

Shana Dowdeswell, 23, an actress who appeared on "Law & Order," died following a night of heavy drinking at 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.

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story. 

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."

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016.

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book.

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote.

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures.

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources. In this story, Newsday could not locate: Christopher Picarella and his brother, Jeff. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review.

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names.

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes.

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local.

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.”

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.”

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes.

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday.

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission. If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories.

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