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Some statistics are easy to explain and describe the world you intuitively know. Here's one: Utah has among the nation's lowest levels of alcohol consumption and binge drinking.

In a state where 60 percent of the residents are Mormons and Mormons shun alcohol, well, that just makes sense.

But how about this stat? Utah has the seventh-highest rate of alcohol poisoning deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"That is disconcerting," said Susannah Burt, who works for the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. "I definitely can say we've got some issues."

But Burt can't explain why Utah would have a higher rate than, say, Illinois or California, states which have more people who drink and more who are willing to admit they drink to excess.

Most of her work targets young people, hoping to ward them off alcohol until they reach age 21. Teens who drink are more likely to develop an alcohol problem. If she can get them to wait a few years, they are likely to become more responsible drinkers, if they choose to drink at all.

The problems of teenage drinking and alcohol poisonings are two very different things.

Anna Fondario, with the state Health Department, dug into her database and found that 156 Utahns died of alcohol poisoning from 2009 to 2013. The numbers for 2014 are not yet available.

In those five years, only five of the deaths were men younger than 24. There were fewer than five women in that same age group — the health department does not release specific numbers that are smaller than five, worried that it may make it easy to identify people.

The biggest group — 64 deaths — were middle-aged men, those between the ages of 45 and 64.

Men, and in particular older men, are by far the most likely to die this way, according to the CDC study, which focused on 2010 to 2012. During that time, Utah averaged 33 alcohol poisoning deaths each year. At first glance, Burt thought that wasn't too high.

"I wouldn't say, 'Oh, my gosh, that is huge," she said.

Burt suggested we compare Utah to Wisconsin, a state that has a reputation for not looking so good in alcohol-related statistics.

But Wisconsin, with a population twice that of Utah, averages only 28 alcohol-related deaths a year, and its rate was the fifth-lowest in the nation.

The CDC listed a few conclusions to its study that may help explain what's happening here.

First, a key stat is not necessarily how many people binge drink, but just how much they consume. A 2010 study showed that only 10.9 percent of Utahns binge drink, tied with West Virginia for lowest in the nation. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men.

That same study had Utah at the higher end in the average amount of drinks consumed during a binge — 7.9 per occasion. Only 10 states had a higher rate. And Wisconsin topped the list: the average binge drinker there finished off nine drinks in one sitting.

But if the intensity of drinking were the major factor, why wouldn't Wisconsin have far more alcohol poisoning deaths?

The CDC also suggested that cultural and religious beliefs may play a factor in some states. That may be true in Utah.

Drinking in Wisconsin is more socially acceptable, so it's theoretically possible that when someone overdoes it, he is with friends who get him medical attention.

With Utah having a strong LDS culture, there could be two factors: one, there could be a strong counterculture at play and two, some Mormons may drink and not feel they can reach out for help.

Rod Hopkins, an assistant professor at the University of Utah College of Social Work, has studied the religious issue as it pertains to young drinkers, saying those who score high on the "rebelliousness" scale tend to drink and those who score high on the "religiosity" scale don't.

"For those who view themselves as non-conformist community members, alcohol consumption may be one of the behaviors they engage in to validate their position," he said.

But Hopkins isn't sure if this translates to older drinkers. His hunch is that the middle-aged people who died from drinking too much are likely to have been heavy drinkers to begin with.

That doesn't appear to be the case. The CDC found that in only 30 percent of the cases was the person dependent on alcohol.

Another possibility is that some Utahns who drink too much are in remote areas, which makes it harder to get medical help.

Fondario took a look at that theory for us as well, and there may be something to it. The rate of alcohol poisoning deaths was higher in southeastern Utah, and central Utah was more than double what it is along the Wasatch Front. Southeastern Utah also has a large American Indian population and generally alcoholism and alcohol poisoning deaths are higher among this group.

There's no definitive conclusion, but Utah's wide open spaces and religious, non-drinking culture may partially explain why the state has an unexpected rate of deaths by drinking.

On the bright side, Fondario found that after five straight years with at least 30 alcohol poisoning deaths, the state recorded only 18 in 2013.

The Utah Effect, a blog by Tribune reporters, looks at statistics that explain The Beehive State. Find past entries at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/UtahEffect.

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