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Despite Lower Levels of Drinking, African Americans Encounter More Harm

Compared to Americans of European descent, African Americans as a whole drink less alcohol and engage less often in dangerous alcohol-related behaviors such as heavy drinking and binge drinking. Despite these facts, African Americans have an unusual tendency to develop serious problems stemming from alcohol consumption. In a report published in February 2014 by the American Psychological Association, researchers from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and three other U.S. universities explored some of the possible explanations for this discrepancy. The results of this exploration indicate that a mixture of factors account for the relatively high rate of alcohol-related harm in African Americans.

The Basics

A federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration uses an annual undertaking called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to track the trends for alcohol use among various racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. According to the latest available findings from this survey (which cover an overlapping portion of the calendar years 2011 and 2012), just over 42 percent of all African Americans age 12 or older drink at least some alcohol in the average month. This compares to monthly consumption rates in other racial/ethnic groups that include 57.4 percent for European Americans, 51.9 percent for people with biracial or multi-ethnic ancestry, 41.8 percent for Hispanic/Latinos, 41.7 percent for Native Americans/Alaska natives and 36.9 percent for Asian Americans.

Figures from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that 4.5 percent of all African-American teenagers and adults drink heavily in the average month; in addition, 20.6 percent of all African Americans in these age groups binge drink (drink enough to get drunk rapidly) at least once a month. The only racial/ethnic group with lower rates for these dangerous alcohol-related practices is Asian Americans, with an involvement in heavy drinking of 1.7 percent and an involvement in binge drinking of 12.7. The highest rates for both heavy drinking and binge drinking (8.5 percent and 30.2 percent, respectively) appear in people of Native American/Alaska native descent. European Americans have the second highest rate for heavy drinking (7.8 percent) and the third highest rate for binge drinking (23.9 percent).

Explaining Outcomes in African Americans

The report published by the American Psychological Association was based on a large-scale review of the previous research work done on matters related to harmful alcohol outcomes in people of African American descent. This body of research includes information gathered from a range of approaches, including genetic investigations, socioeconomic investigations and explorations of the social history of African Americans as a whole. The main author of the report, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor Tamika Zapolski, initiated the project specifically to determine why African Americans have higher levels of alcohol-related harm than their European American counterparts, despite the fact that they have lower rates for both alcohol intake and participation in the activities most likely to result in seriously negative drinking consequences (i.e., heavy drinking and binge drinking).

Dr. Zapolski and her fellow authors found that longstanding social and cultural traditions in both African American and pre-slavery communities discourage the consumption of alcohol and set fairly narrow limits on acceptable behavior in people who do drink. Perhaps counterintuitively, they also concluded that, while strict limits on acceptability stop some people from drinking, these social and cultural restrictions actually contribute to the rate of alcohol-related harm by producing strongly unpleasant social consequences for those individuals who violate established drinking norms. Other factors that apparently contribute to the rate of negative alcohol outcomes in African American communities include a widespread genetic susceptibility to the effects of relatively low amounts of alcohol, the greater likelihood that publicly intoxicated people in African American communities will have an encounter with the police and the lack of economic opportunity and/or strong personal and social support networks among certain groups of exceptionally poor African American men.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the report published by the American Psychological Association drew their conclusions from a theoretical analysis of the previous research done on the topic of African Americans and alcohol-related harm. This means that they did not use statistical methods to examine the data gathered from earlier research efforts; instead, they used the data to create a theoretical framework that could explain the high rate of alcohol-related problems in African American communities. If the authors’ theories are correct, they could significantly improve the understanding of these problems.

Posted on March 28th, 2014
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

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