More adults in the U.S. appear to be drinking alcohol, according to a new study of the nation's drinking habits.

July 20, 2010


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By Denise Mann

TUESDAY, July 20 (Health.com) — More adults in the U.S. appear to be drinking alcohol, according to a new study of the nation's drinking habits.

And the trend seems to be consistent across ethnic groups and genders. Between 1992 and 2002, the percentage of men and women who drank alcohol increased, as did the percentage of whites, blacks, and Hispanics, the study found.

Americans don't seem to be drinking more, however, as the average number of drinks consumed per month remained steady.

“More people are drinking, but they seem to not be drinking heavily as frequently,” says Rhonda Jones-Webb, an epidemiologist and alcohol expert at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, in Minneapolis. (Jones-Webb was not involved in the research.)

Yet the study revealed an important exception to that trend: an uptick in the number of people who binge drink at least once a month. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks in one day.

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“We need to address this increase, which may be associated with alcohol abuse," says Deborah Dawson, PhD, a staff scientist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in Bethesda, Md. "We may need to focus our attention on preventive measures that target binge drinking.”

Although the study doesn't show how drinking trends may have changed since 2002, the rates of binge drinking—and drinking in general—may be even higher now. Over the past two years, the economy has nose-dived into recession and joblessness has climbed—and, as the study notes, unemployment is associated with stress and alcohol use.

It "could be the case" that Americans are drinking more to assuage their financial anxiety, Jones-Webb says. “It would be good to replicate the same study over the last eight years and see if the findings are similar.”

Researchers from the University of Texas School of Public Health and the University of North Texas Health Science Center compared data from two national surveys on adult alcohol consumption that were conducted roughly a decade apart, in the early 1990s and early 2000s. (Both surveys included a representative sample of Americans, but they did not include the same individuals.)

Next page: Drinking, binge drinking up

The study appears on the website of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. Among the notable findings:

  • The percentage of men who drank increased by about 5% to 7% across all ethnic groups. The increases were slightly higher among women, between 8% to 9%.
  • Roughly 64% of white men drank alcohol in 2002, compared to 60% of Hispanic men and 53% of black men. Among women, 47% of whites, 32% of Hispanics, and 30% of blacks drank any alcohol.
  • For all three ethnic groups, the average number of drinks consumed per month remained level between 1992 and 2002.
  • White men drank about 22 drinks per month in 2002, on average, compared to about 19 for blacks and 18 for Hispanics. By contrast, white, black, and Hispanic women consumed just 6, 5, and 3.5 drinks per month, respectively.
  • Binge drinking increased across the board, but especially among men. The percentage of white men who had five drinks in a day at least once a week increased from 9% to 14%, and there was a similar increase among Hispanic men.
  • Whites are more likely than blacks and Hispanics to get drunk. Twenty percent of white men drank to intoxication at least once a month, compared to just 13% of black men.

It's not exactly clear which real-world factors might account for the broad trends identified in the study.

The rise in the proportion of drinkers and in binge drinking could be a sign that society is more accepting of alcohol consumption (and overconsumption), says Stephen Bahr, PhD, a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah.

“There has been much emphasis on drug education and treatment but not as much emphasis on alcohol misuse, which could signal a change in norms and explain the increase in the prevalence of drinkers," he says.

Social and economic characteristics also affect alcohol consumption in complex ways. The researchers note that people who live alone, are unemployed, are less educated, and were born in the U.S. are all more likely to drink alcohol (and more of it). At the same time, whites may drink more because, as a group, they are more affluent and can better afford alcohol, says Jones-Webb.

Although the researchers controlled for marital status, education, income, and age, other unidentified factors may have skewed the survey data on different genders and ethnic groups, Bahr says.

Still, says Jones-Webb, the study provides "a nice national snapshot of changes in drinking trends over time. This is helpful in evaluating whether health messages regarding drinking are working, and who we may need to target more effectively."

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