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Only 1 in 10 heavy drinkers in U.S. are alcoholics, CDC study finds

People who drink excessively but are not alcohol dependent benefit from policies that reduce people’s access to alcohol, say the CDC researchers.

People who drink excessively but are not alcohol dependent benefit more from policies that reduce people’s access to alcohol, such as raising the tax on alcohol.
REUTERS/Michael Dalder

Nearly a third of American adults drink excessive amounts of alcohol, but only 10 percent of them are alcoholics, according to a study published late last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That’s a surprising finding. For the prevailing assumption has been that most people who drink excessively are alcohol dependent.

Signs of alcohol dependency — or alcoholism — include not being able to cut down or stop drinking, continuing to drink even after it causes problems with family or work, and long stretches of time spent drinking each day.

The new CDC finding also has important public-health implications, for it suggests that most excessive drinkers don’t need to be treated for addiction.

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People who drink excessively but are not alcohol dependent benefit more, say the CDC researchers, from policies that reduce people’s access to alcohol, such as raising the tax on alcohol, restricting the days and hours during which alcohol can be sold, and holding bars, restaurants and other businesses civilly liable for damages caused by intoxicated patrons.

“This study shows that, contrary to popular opinion, most people who drink too much are not alcohol dependent or alcoholics,” said study co-author Dr. Robert Brewer, who heads the CDC’s alcohol program, in a press statement released with the study. “It also emphasizes the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to reducing excessive drinking that includes evidence-based community strategies, screening and counseling in healthcare settings, and high-quality substance abuse treatment for those who need it.” 

A high cost

The study’s finding does not mean that America’s alcohol problem is any less serious just because most excessive drinkers are not alcoholics. Nor does it mean that individuals who are heavy drinkers aren’t putting their health — and their lives — at risk.

Excessive alcohol  — defined by health officials as having eight or more drinks a week for women or 15 or more drinks a week for men — kills about 88,000 Americans each year, making it a leading cause of premature deaths in the United States. Alcoholic-related causes of death include car crashes, falls and violence, as well as dozens of illnesses, such as liver disease, heart disease and breast cancer.

Half of these deaths are caused by binge drinking, which is defined for women as having four or more drinks and for men as having five or more drinks during a single occasion. Most excessive drinkers are binge drinkers, the CDC study found.

The CDC study notes that excessive drinking is estimated to cost the U.S. economy $223.5 billion in 2006 (the last year for which such an estimate was done). That comes out to about $1.91 per drink. Those economic losses were in workplace productivity, health-care expenses, criminal justice expenses and other costs related to the consequences of alcohol-related behavior (such as property damage).

FYI: Minnesota’s costs were slightly lower than the national average in 2006: $1.65 per drink, or $687 per person. The state’s economic losses related to excessive alcohol consumption that year totalled $3.5 billion.

Other findings

Data for the new CDC study came from 138,100 adults who took part in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health between 2009 and 2011. Here are some of the study’s additional findings:

  • Excessive drinking, binge drinking and alcohol dependence was highest among men, people between the ages of 18 and 24, and those who were unemployed.
  • Among racial and ethnic groups, the highest levels of binge drinking were found among Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders (31.8 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (28.6 percent), although the CDC researchers say most differences among such groups were not statistically significant.
  • Binge drinking was significantly higher among people with some college education (30.1 percent) than among those with less education.
  • Binge drinking was significantly higher among people with a family income of $75,000 or more than among lower income groups, while alcohol dependency was significantly higher among those with a family income of $25,000 or less.

The study was published in the CDC journal Preventing Chronic Disease, and can be read in full at the CDC website.