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Half of Americans’ binge drinks are consumed by people 35 years or older, CDC says

One in six American adults — about 37 million people — engage in at least one binge-drinking episode each year, the study found.

One in six American adults — about 37 million people — engage in at least one binge-drinking episode each year.
REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Binge drinking is remarkably common in the United States, and not just among college students, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

One in six American adults — about 37 million people — engage in at least one binge-drinking episode each year, the study found. And many go on a bingeing bender much more often than that. Indeed, binge drinkers average 53 episodes per year — or one a week — and consume an average of seven drinks during each occasion. (Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks per occasion for women and five or more drinks per occasion for men.)

The CDC researchers estimate that Americans downed 17.5 billion drinks during bingeing episodes in 2015, or 467 binge drinks per binge drinker.

And half of those total binge drinks were consumed by adults aged 35 or older.

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Those are startling — and disturbing — findings. As background information in the study points out, binge drinking accounts for about half of the 88,000 deaths from excessive alcohol use in the U.S. each year, including one in 10 deaths from all causes among working-age adults. The health and social problems associated with binge drinking is long. It includes injuries, violence, suicide, alcohol poisoning, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, liver disease and severe alcohol dependency. 

Much of the recent focus regarding substance abuse has been on the opioid crisis, yet alcohol consumption, particularly heavy drinking, is also on the rise. A study published last year found that high-risk drinking in the U.S. increased by about 30 percent between 2001 and 2013.

A widespread problem

For the current study, researchers at the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Diseases analyzed data on the self-reported drinking habits of a representative sample of 408,800 people aged 18 and older who participated in the 2015 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, which the CDC has been conducting annually for more than three decades. The researchers looked specifically at the data regarding the participants’ binge-drinking behaviors, which they then broke down by age, gender, education, household income, race/ethnicity and state.

Here are the main findings:

  • Binge drinking is a problem for all age groups. Although the prevalence of binge drinking is significantly higher among people under the age of 35, more than half of the total number of binge drinks are consumed by older people. The binge drinkers in the study aged 65 and older, for example, consumed an average of 435 binge drinks each year. Yet the study found that only 11 percent of current drinkers in that age group were binge drinkers compared to 25 percent of current drinkers under the age of 35.
  • Men are much more likely to binge drink than women. Men accounted for almost three-quarters of the total binge-drinking episodes in 2015 and consumed 80 percent of the 17.5 billion total binge drinks.
  • Binge drinking was more common among college graduates (19 percent) in the study than among adults with less than a high school education (14 percent), but those with less education reported consuming almost twice the annual number of total binge drinks.
  • Binge drinking was significantly more common among people with a household income equal to or greater than $75,000 (22 percent) in the study than among those whose household income was equal to or less than $25,000 (14 percent). People in the lower income bracket also consumed fewer binge drinks per year than their wealthier peers.
  • Binge drinking was most prevalent among whites (19 percent), followed by American Indians/Alaska Natives (18 percent), Hispanics (16 percent), blacks (13 percent) and people of Asian/Pacific Islander backgrounds (10 percent). Whites accounted for most (73 percent) of the total binge drinks consumed in 2015, although American Indians/Alaska Natives averaged the most binge drinks per person that year (100).
  • Binge drinkers consumed the most alcohol in Arkansas (an average of 841 drinks per binge drinker per year) and the least in Washington, D.C. (317). Minnesota came in relatively low on the list, with an average of 419 binge drinks per binge drinker per year — the fifth best ranking among all the states.

Needed: a comprehensive approach

“This study shows that binge drinkers are consuming a huge number of drinks per year, greatly increasing their chances of harming themselves and others,” said Dr. Robert Brewer, the study’s senior author, in a released statement.” The findings also show that importance of taking a comprehensive approach to prevent binge drinking, focusing on reducing both the number of times people binge drink and the amount they drink when they binge.” 

As Brewer and his colleagues point out in the study, nine in 10 adults who binge drink are not alcohol-dependent, so providing access to treatment for alcohol dependency is not going to be enough to decrease binge drinking. What is also needed, the researchers stress, are policies that evidence has shown work. The ones that are most effective, they say, are raising the tax on alcohol, regulating who can sell alcohol (particularly limiting the density of places where alcohol is sold) and making businesses that serve alcohol liable for injuries caused by customers who become intoxicated on their premises.

These interventions are currently being underused — a lack of action that is imposing a huge financial burden on the country, the researchers point out. The total federal and state taxes on alcoholic beverages, for example, is about 14 cents per drink, while the economic cost of excessive drinking is about $2 per drink.

Binge drinking is responsible for about three quarters of that cost.

FMI: The CDC’s report was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, where it can be downloaded and read in full.