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New Study Breaks Binge Drinking Down

Editor Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Created On
Updated On

binge drinkingAlcohol, in some way or another, kills 88,000 American people every single year. More than half of these deaths occur as a direct result of binge drinking. Wake-up call: you do not have to be an alcoholic to be a binge drinker. Having four or more drinks on one drinking occasion (for women), or having five or more (for men) constitutes binge drinking.

A recently published study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) approached the study of binge drinking from a whole new angle. Not only did the authors invent a new way to measure binge drinking, they also addressed some inconsistencies in the world of studying it.

Consider this quote from the study: “To date, binge-drinking prevalence is the most commonly used measure of binge drinking… However, there are important disparities in binge-drinking behavior that are not apparent based on an assessment of binge-drinking prevalence alone.”

Prevalence is essentially how widespread something is. For instance, among households with higher incomes, binge drinking is more prevalent than among households with lower incomes. Yet this new study found that both the frequency and intensity of binge drinking is higher in the households with lower incomes.

Frequency is the rate of new instances of binge drinking, and intensity is simply defined here as the number of actual drinks consumed per binge drinking episode.

Let’s talk more about the study, the system by which it was performed, and also cover some of the conclusions that were drawn. Finally let’s address how the results of the study can help reduce binge drinking overall.

Annual Total Binge Drinks Consumed by U.S. Adults

The subtitle above is actually the title of the published study. As mentioned, before this study, the majority of studies on binge drinking focused on prevalence only. The AJPM study is quite innovative because it defined a new measure of binge drinking on the personal level: total annual binge drinks. According to the study, to find this number, one would multiply the number of yearly episodes of binge drinking by the number of drinks consumed per binge drinking episode.

To determine the number of total annual binge drinks for populations in general, the study used something called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, or BRFSS. According to the (above-linked) publication, the system “is a state-based, random-digit-dial landline and cellular telephone survey of noninstitutionalized, civilian U.S. adults aged ≥18 years that is conducted monthly in all states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. BRFSS collects data on leading health conditions and risk behaviors, including binge drinking.”

Believe it or not, the BRFSS is responded to at a pretty high rate. The national average reply rate for the 2015 survey, which was used by the authors of the study, was 47.1 percent. Even the lowest percentage factored in, (which would be a state but the state name was not given), was 33.9% which means that the BRFSS definitely produces results that can represent the whole nation validly.

The survey covers much ground, but relating to alcohol consumption, there are four questions. Each of them applies only to the previous 30 days. The questions ask (1) how many days you drank alcohol, (2) what the average number of drinks consumed was per day you drank, (3) how many times you binge-drank, and (4) what the largest number of drinks consumed on one occasion was. Therefore, according to the study, “Average annual number of binge-drinking episodes among binge drinkers was calculated by multiplying the frequency of binge-drinking episodes reported during the past 30 days by 12.”

Using such calculations, the authors of the study were able to produce some astounding information. There are far too many calculations to share with you here, but again, the study is linked above.

The Results

Well over 37 million Americans binge drank in 2015. That’s over 17% of all US adults! The average number of annual binge drinking episodes reported was 53.1, or just over one per week. Now, I do not claim to be a math whiz, and I can only assume that you, dear reader, do not have a PhD in mathematics, so I will try and make this as clear as possible. Using this data, the authors of the study concluded that there are 1.9 billion individual episodes of binge drinking in America every year, which averages out to be about eight and a half binge drinking episodes per year for every single adult, drinker or not.

This country is flooded with alcohol, and we’re drinking it at alarming and possibly deadly rates.

The average number of drinks consumed per binge drinking episode, (the intensity), was seven. This translates to the average American binge drinking occurrence being a six-pack plus one. In doing all of their wonderful math, the authors of the study therefore concluded that in 2015 “there were 17.5 billion total binge drinks consumed annually, or 76.6 total binge drinks per U.S. adult per year.”

Here are some more facts that came about from the study.

Men seem to binge drink much more often than women do. Binge drinking was nearly twice as prevalent among males as among females, and of those 17.5 billion binge drinks consumed yearly, around 14 billion of them were consumed by men. We found this particular tidbit to be interesting: “Adults with less than a high school education had significantly lower prevalence of binge drinking compared with college graduates, but they reported consuming 1.7 times the annual number of total binge drinks (94.1 vs 56.0 binge drinks/adult).”

What this means is that among those who we dub ‘uneducated,’ binge drinking occurs much less often than among those with college degrees. However, when a member of the ‘uneducated’ class of Americans does binge drink, he or she tends to consume almost twice as many drinks as when a college graduate binge drinks. Unsurprisingly, those considered heavy drinkers, (those who binge drink on five or more occasions per month), yielded the highest prevalence, frequency and intensity of binge drinking.

A Look at the States

The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System is utilized in all fifty US states. Utah ended up having the lowest number of total annual binge drinks per adult with 46.2, and North Dakota ended up having the highest number with 128.9 drinks. Talking in the realm of total annual binge drinkers per person, Arkansas (841.0), Mississippi (831.8), Kentucky (652.8), and Hawaii (611.7) ranked rather highly. Also of note is the fact that regionally, the Mississippi River Valley ranked highest in this category.

The graphic below shows a color-coded map of total annual binge drinks per binge drinker. Where does your state rank? It’s rather clear to see here how the Mississippi River Valley is quite affected by binge drinking. In contrast, one can see how just west of there, the intensity rate drops severely.

binge drinking statistics

Effects of Binge Drinking

Studies such as this are definitely not free, and they require a lot of hours of work and effort from many extremely gifted people. Therefore, rarely are they performed for whimsy. The ultimate point of this study was to further investigate binge drinking so as to try and reduce its prevalence. To see why this is so important, first one must understand just how risky binge drinking really is.

Read this line from the discussion section of the study very carefully: “Adult binge drinkers are doing so frequently and with great intensity… significantly increasing the risk for alcohol-attributable harms to themselves and others.” There is a wide range of harms referred to. Obviously the worst of them is death, which unfortunately can come many ways with alcohol abuse. Alcohol poisoning, drunk driving, and any of the fatal diseases caused by alcohol are some of them.

Non-fatal harms that binge drinking can cause also come in many forms – likely many more than you might initially think. We are not just talking damage to the body here. We are talking poor decision making as a result of damage to the mind.

Short-term harms binge drinking

  • Increased risk of violence
  • Increased risk of domestic abuse
  • Increased likelihood to engage in risky behaviors such as committing crime or having unsafe sex
  • Unintentional injury to self or others
  • Poor performance in school and/or at work
  • Vomiting and nausea

If you are a heavy drinker, pay close attention to what follows.

Long-term of effects of binge drinking

  • Liver disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Seizures (which could lead to delirium tremens – a fatal side effect of alcohol abuse)
  • Depression
  • Brain damage

What Does It All Mean?

Now it’s time to get into the meat of the article. How can the study help prevent and/or change for the better the epidemic of binge drinking we are facing in the US? To best answer that question, here’s the last quote from the study; we promise:

“[There] are important disparities in binge-drinking behavior that are not apparent based on an assessment of binge-drinking prevalence alone. Monitoring total binge drinks consumed annually and total binge drinks per binge drinker could help overcome some of these limitations, and provide a more sensitive and specific way to plan, implement, and evaluate community and clinical preventive strategies for reducing binge drinking and related harms.”

That’s exactly it. The more we know about something that causes us harm, the more armed we are to protect ourselves from it. One example of the ‘disparities’ that cause ‘limitations’ referred to above is the low-income versus high-income household situation we talked about earlier. There are countless things like this that previous studies would not have caught.

To us, one of the key words used in the quote above is ‘sensitive’. When attempting to slow down something as grand-scale as binge drinking, you have to take an approach that is bold and effective but also sensitive and empathetic. Remember, the vast majority of American alcoholics do not seek help for their problematic drinking. With the results of this study, those responsible for implementing such approaches to tackling the issue of binge drinking are better equipped.

In Conclusion

One should hesitate in using the term ‘groundbreaking,’ but it’s hard not think of that word when one considers a team of scientists inventing a new way to calculate binge drinking in America. It becomes especially hard not to consider it groundbreaking when you realize the impact it could have.

Knowing that Mississippi Valley consumes the most drinks means that organizations like NCADD and the NIAAA and DARE should focus more heavily there on a national level. Knowing that North Dakota seems to consume the highest amount of binge drinks means that communities in the state should increase their awareness regarding alcohol abuse and the harms it may be causing. The list goes on.

If you or a loved one suffers from alcoholism, is a heavy drinker, or is someone who binge drinks, please seek help immediately. Alcohol is a volatile and extremely dangerous substance, and it’s legal, and it’s everywhere. Please drink responsibly if you do indulge.

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