‘Wetter’ Drinking Climate in U.S., Study Finds

A team of American researchers has found that excessive alcohol consumption has become more common in the U.S. and has called for expanded efforts to prevent chronic drinking.

Heavy drinking (also known as excessive drinking or at-risk drinking) is a pattern of alcohol intake that exceeds public health guidelines for safe alcohol intake and subsequently increases the odds that any given individual will develop alcohol use disorder (alcoholism and/or non-dependent alcohol abuse). In a study published in late 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a team of American researchers tracked ongoing trends in heavy drinking across the U.S. and found a “wetter” drinking climate in 2012-2013 than in 2001-2002.

Heavy Drinking

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines heavy drinking according to a gender-specific level of daily or weekly alcohol intake. Men transition from relatively safe moderate intake to clearly health-threatening excessive intake when they regularly consume more than four drinks on any single day or more than 14 drinks throughout the span of a week. Women transition from moderate intake to excessive intake when they regularly consume more than three drinks on any single day or more than seven drinks throughout the span of a single week. In this context, regular participation is defined by involvement in heavy drinking at least once a month.

Figures from the NIAAA show that the average person who drinks excessively just one time a month has an approximately 20 percent chance of developing alcohol use disorder in his or her lifetime. The average person who drinks excessively once a week has a roughly 33 percent lifetime risk for the condition, while the average person who drinks excessively a minimum of two times a week has a 50 percent chance of developing alcohol use disorder at some point in time. All told, roughly 25 percent of all heavy drinkers in America have symptoms that indicate the presence of alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse.

Annual Heavy Drinking Rate

Every year, a federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration tracks the number of preteens, teenagers and adults across the U.S. who participate in heavy drinking. Figures from the latest survey conducted by this agency (covering the year 2013) show that, in terms of age, the highest rate for the practice (13.1 percent) occurs among young adults between the ages of 21 and 25. The second-highest rate (11.2 percent) occurs among young adults between the ages of 26 and 29, while the third-highest rate (10.5 percent) occurs among adults between the ages of 30 and 34. In descending order of frequency, other groups with a relatively high rate of excessive drinking include teens/young adults between the ages of 18 and 20, adults between the ages of 35 and 39, and adults between the ages of 40 and 44.

Are the Rates Increasing?

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from Kelly Government Services and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism used nationwide survey data to compare the overall rate of heavy drinking recorded in the U.S. in the years 2001-2002 to the rate recorded in the years 2012-2013. In each of these timeframes, questions posed to survey participants addressed issues such as involvement in any amount of drinking, the amount of alcohol typically consumed, the usual frequency of alcohol consumption and the rate of participation in binge drinking (rapid alcohol intake that results in legal drunkenness), a practice that can qualify as a form of heavy drinking when it occurs frequently. In addition, the researchers recorded basic demographic information (gender, age, racial/ethnic background, etc.) for all participants.

After analyzing the gathered data, the researchers concluded that the nationwide level of involvement in heavy drinking rose substantially in the 10-year period between the early years of the 2000s and the early 2010s. This conclusion was supported by a rise in baseline involvement in drinking in general, a rise in the amount of alcohol typically consumed, a rise in the usual frequency of alcohol consumption and a rise in the monthly rate of binge drinking. Demographic groups particularly likely to experience an increase in heavy drinking include women and people with a non-European racial/ethnic background.

In light of their results, the study’s authors call for a stronger focus on public health efforts designed to prevent participation in heavy drinking and/or binge drinking. They believe that the general U.S. population should be targeted through these efforts, as well as specific demographic groups with a particularly high level of risk exposure.

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