It was revealed Wednesday (October 26) that Winehouse had more than five times the legal driving limit of alcohol in her body at the time of her July 23 death, which coroner Suzanne Greenway said unintentionally led to "such potentially fatal levels" that it caused the "Rehab" singer's demise.
Dr. Sam Zakhari, director of the Division of Metabolism and Health Effects at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said what apparently befell Winehouse is not unlike what happens on college campuses every weekend.
"This is not the first time we're hearing about someone dying from an overdose of alcohol," said Zakhari, who did not treat Winehouse and has no firsthand knowledge of her case, but who was speaking to MTV News as an expert on the public facts of the case. "You hear it quite frequently here in the U.S. about college students who drink themselves to death."
Zakhari said when an individual consumes too much alcohol too quickly, their blood alcohol level increases dramatically and it can rise rapidly to several times the legal limit for intoxication. "That inhibits what's called the respiratory center, which is the area in the brain that controls [breathing]. When that is inhibited, people cannot breathe, period. That's what causes their death."
Winehouse, 27, who famously struggled with drug and alcohol addiction during her short life and rapid rise to fame, was found in bed in her London apartment in July, and police said they discovered three bottles of vodka at the scene. The inquest found no sign of illegal drugs in her system, and a postmortem examination of her body found her vital organs in good health. The amount of alcohol in her system was enough to stop her breathing and possibly send her into a coma, according to officials.
After initial autopsy results were inconclusive, the Grammy-winning singer's father, Mitch Winehouse, said his daughter had been drug-free for some time, suggesting that it was alcohol withdrawal that had killed her. But one of the singer's doctors said Winehouse had begun drinking again a few days before her death after a long period of abstinence.
Asked if Winehouse's history of substance abuse had any impact on the way she died, Zakhari said that her background would not necessarily play a part in such a death. "Experience with alcohol doesn't preclude a person from having respiratory arrest," he said. "There's no difference. Tolerance works within certain limits, but that would mainly [have an impact] on behavior." In other words, someone who has never been drunk will exhibit more visible signs of inebriation after consuming large amounts, versus a person with a history of drinking. But that tolerance is quickly negated as the level of alcohol consumed rises.
"A high concentration [of alcohol] will make that part of the brain cease to function regardless of whether that person is a chronic drinker or not," he said.