New Study Shows Heavy Drinking on the Rise in the U.S.

Americans are drinking more heavily than they did just a decade ago, and binge drinking among women in the U.S. has increased dramatically over that same time span.
David Sack

According to data published in April in the American Journal of Public Health, rates of heavy drinking in the adult population rose by 17 percent between 2005 and 2012. For the purposes of this study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, women who had averaged more than one alcoholic drink per day and men who had averaged more than two drinks daily over the previous month were classified as “heavy” drinkers. Heavy drinking in this context is not synonymous with alcoholism, but it does describe a pattern of behavior common to that disorder.

Meanwhile, rates of binge drinking (four or more alcoholic drinks in one setting for women and five or more for men) in the United States have also increased, and the rise has been especially notable among women. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of women who admitted to incidents of binge drinking within the previous 30 days jumped dramatically, eclipsing the rate of increase in men by a whopping 360 percent.

As of 2012, 8 percent of Americans could be classified as heavy drinkers while 18 percent were regular binge drinkers. Over the last few decades, the percentage of U.S. residents who drink alcohol has remained relatively constant, so the increase measured in the intensity of boozing has not been accompanied by a jump in the overall number of alcohol consumers.

One unique aspect of this study is that it was the first to track consumption county-by-county across the United States. Binge drinking was most common in Menominee County, Wisconsin, as an astronomical 36 percent of its residents confessed to binge episodes within the past month. Esmerelda County in Nevada topped the list of heavy drinking counties, with 22 percent of its population registering positive for regular excessive guzzling. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Madison County in Idaho and Hancock County in Tennessee checked in at 6 percent binge drinkers and 2 percent heavy drinkers, respectively.

Why Is Heavy Drinking on the Rise?

To some extent, the numbers revealed in this survey are driven by an increase in alcohol consumption among women. Overall, roughly two-thirds of all women in the U.S drink alcohol, which means drinking parity between men and women has finally been achieved.

Here are some troublesome statistics that illustrate how things have changed in just the past couple of decades:

  • Between 1999 and 2008, there was a 50 percent increase in the number of young women requiring hospitalization for symptoms of alcohol poisoning.
  • From 1998 to 2007, women’s incidence of DUI jumped by 30 percent (DUI arrests for men declined by 7.5 percent during this same time period).
  • In the 1980s, women comprised about 10 percent of the American alcoholic population; at the present time about one-third of the alcoholics in the country are women.
  • About 8 percent of women in the U.S. will develop a drinking problem at some point in their lives (as compared to 17 percent of men).

There are other factors as well that may help explain the recent rise in dangerous drinking practices. For example, tax rates on liquor products have not kept up with inflation, and as a result alcohol is now cheaper in real dollars than it used to be. Also, many of the restrictions on where and when alcohol can be sold have been lifted in recent years by state and local governments, and the old-time “dry” counties that once proliferated in some regions (especially the South) have all but disappeared from the map. It’s also a fact that in recent years, liquor and beer companies have increased their advertising budgets substantially, and the ubiquity of alcohol advertising undoubtedly helps reinforce the idea that prodigious drinking is the most reliable gateway to exciting and pleasurable times. And the possibility that heavier drinking is connected to the economic downturn of the late 2000s cannot be dismissed, as many people may be turning to alcohol to escape from their troubles and insecurities.

But whatever the reasons for the uptick in problematic drinking, if this trend continues it could become a serious public health concern in the very near future.

Posted on June 9th, 2015
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

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