MONDAY, March 14, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- People who drink malt liquor are more likely to be homeless, jobless and receive public assistance. And they tend to consume more alcohol and more often than other types of drinkers, a new study finds.

While the authors say more research is needed, they suggest that because malt liquor has a higher alcohol content and consumers tend to drink more of it, these factors could be to blame for the "negative alcohol-related consequences" found in the study.

"Malt liquor drinkers appear different from beer drinkers in the amount of alcohol consumption," said lead researcher Ricky Bluthenthal, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles and a researcher at the Rand Corporation. "These malt liquor drinkers drink a lot more than regular beer drinkers."

This distinction is important because in most research, malt liquor is lumped together with regular beer, the researchers said. But the two are quite different. Besides the higher alcohol content, malt liquor is sold in larger sizes. For example, drinking a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, called a "forty," as a single serving is not unusual. Also, people who drink malt liquor tend to drink more than regular beer drinkers, the researchers found.

Although malt liquor is becoming more popular among some college students, it is primarily sold in low-income areas.

For this reason, the researchers surveyed black residents of low-income areas of Los Angeles, according to their report in the March issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Several calls to the malt liquor industry for comment on the study were not returned.

Bluthenthal said regular beer contains 5 percent alcohol or less. Malt liquor can have as much as 8 percent alcohol and is sold in larger sizes, he noted.

In their study, Bluthenthal and his team interviewed 329 drinkers. Of this group, 297 reported drinking malt liquor, regular beer or hard liquor in the past 90 days. Among these, 88 percent were black, 72 percent were male and 35 percent were unemployed.

The researchers found that, compared with those who drank regular beer or hard liquor, people who drank malt liquor were more likely to be homeless, to receive public assistance for housing, and to be unemployed.

In addition, malt liquor drinkers reported drinking significantly more on a daily basis than non-malt liquor drinkers. "Malt liquor drinkers were drinking three times more alcohol on a daily basis than their beer drinking counterparts," Bluthenthal said.

The research leaves several questions that need to be pursued, Bluthenthal said. They include, is there something unique about malt liquor? Also, if malt liquor weren't available, would these people drink more beer or hard liquor?

"Maybe malt liquor shouldn't be considered a beer, or maybe it shouldn't have high alcohol content," Bluthenthal said. "But what we have to figure out is whether the finding is about the product or about the people."

"We need to stop thinking of malt liquor beers as regular beers," he added

Elizabeth Waiters, an associate research scientist at the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley, Calif., has studied the way alcohol and malt liquor are presented in the lyrics of popular music. She called the study findings "timely."

Waiters thinks malt liquor is targeted to a low-income, urban population. "There is a popular perception that malt liquor is the drink of African-American men and young men," she said. "With the rise of rap music, there was a lot of glorification of alcohol, particularly malt liquor."

Moreover, Waiters said, "The alcohol industry recognized the trend-setting ability of African-American and Latino communities. They consciously targeted the college-aged, white male population as well, knowing that if they wanted to get young suburban drinkers, the way to do that is to hype this masculine culture that matched what was happening in the rap community."

Young people who drink malt liquor are doing it because of the high alcohol content, Waiters added. "Taste is not the issue," she said.

Waiters is concerned about the use of malt liquor, particularly among young people. "We have an obligation in alcohol education and prevention efforts," she said.

More information

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism can tell you more about alcohol abuse.

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