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Study: Americans Getting Drunker

Binge drinking on the rise in U.S., statistics show

THURSDAY, Jan. 2, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Countless numbers of people woke up with a hangover on New Year's Day and swore to never get plastered again. But a new study suggests that one in seven Americans won't be able to stay away from temptation for very long in 2003.

Researchers found that the average adult in the United States gets drunk 7.5 times per year -- "about as often as they get their hair cut," said study co-author Dr. Tim Naimi, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And it isn't just college students who are getting lit on a regular basis. Only 30 percent of adult Americans who frequently get drunk are under the age of 26.

"Our study shows that there's lots of binge drinking throughout our society," Naimi said.

Drinking contributes to an estimated 100,000 deaths each year in the United States. While there are plenty of slang terms for getting loaded, researchers use the unflashy term "binge drinking" to describe it. "It's basically drinking to get drunk," Naimi said.

There is some controversy over exactly how to define binge drinking, said Rhonda Jones-Webb, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health who studies alcohol abuse.

Typically, however, binge drinking refers to the consumption of four drinks (for women) or five drinks (for men) over a short period of time.

Although plenty of studies have investigated drunkenness, researchers usually focus on college students, Naimi said. He and his colleagues decided to take a different approach and look at binge drinking among adults as a whole.

They examined the 1993-2001 results of an annual national telephone survey that is conducted in every state. Researchers interviewed between 102,000 and 212,000 people each year.

The study findings appear in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The surveys suggest that Americans in 2001 went on 1.5 billion drunken binges, an increase of about 300 million from 1993. Men were responsible for 81 percent of the binges, and almost three-quarters of all binge drinkers weren't otherwise heavy boozers.

In one of the most disturbing findings, researchers found that binge drinkers were 14 times more likely to drive drunk than other drinkers.

Naimi acknowledged that tying one on isn't always hazardous to your health.

"This is not saying that disaster happens every time someone has five or more drinks," he said. "But after that level, the law of averages starts to catch up to people. More bad things start to happen to them: They're upping their chances of doing something harmful to themselves or, in some ways more importantly, to someone else."

Naimi said American society needs to do more to emphasize the risks of binge drinking. "Alcohol companies and the government tell people to drink responsibility, but we send out a mixed message," he said. "If you look at taxes on alcohol, they've declined substantially in the last two decades when adjusted for inflation."

Higher alcohol taxes will indeed help to reduce drinking, especially among teenagers, said Jones-Webb.

Another useful approach would be to reduce the number of inner-city liquor stores that sell malt beverages with high alcohol content, she added.

What To Do

Learn about binge drinking from the Harvard School of Public Health. The State University of New York at Potsdam also offers a fact sheet on binge drinking.

SOURCES: Tim Naimi, M.D., M.P.H., epidemiologist, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Rhonda Jones-Webb, Dr.P.H., associate professor of epidemiology, University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Minneapolis; Jan. 1, 2003, Journal of the American Medical Association
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