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Home > Research Articles > Binge Drinkers Get a Pass, Says Study, While Costs Mount

The Washington Post

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Time to sober up after that New Year's Eve bacchanal: A new study shows that binge drinking -- taking more than five drinks on one occasion -- is on the rise, and that it costs billions of dollars and leads to tens of thousands of deaths on the roads and tens of thousands more murders, suicides and assaults.

Unlike chronic drinking, acknowledged as a disease, binge drinking is laughed off as a deserved celebration or rite of passage, says Timothy Naimi, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whose study appeared in the Jan. 1 Journal of the American Medical Association. But half of the 100,000 alcohol-related deaths each year are due to binges, says Naimi, who found that binge drinkers are 14 times more likely to drive when impaired than non-binge drinkers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in December that more than 40 percent of the 42,116 motor vehicle deaths in 2001 were alcohol-related.

Naimi and colleagues analyzed a biannual CDC phone survey of about 200,000 people on health issues. Reported binge-drinking episodes rose from 1.2 billion in 1993 to 1.5 billion in 2001, an increase Naimi says can't be explained by population growth. And because people tend to underreport drinking behavior, Naimi says, the study underestimates the problem.

Surprisingly, young adults overall are not the problem many think they are. Those in the more populous 26-to-55-year-old age group accounted for a far bigger proportion -- 69 percent -- of binge episodes. But drinkers between 18 and 25 who binge do it more often than others, with an average 15.3 episodes per year for 18-to-20-year-olds and 18 per year for 20-to-25-year-olds. The typical binge drinker is a young (under age 26) white or Hispanic male, says Naimi. African American men and women binge less, as do residents of the Southeastern United States. And a large percentage of bingers classify themselves as "moderate" drinkers, defined as men who ordinarily take two drinks per day and women who take one. This shows a wide gap between perception and reality, says Mary Dufour, deputy director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, based in Bethesda. "There's a big difference between having one or two drinks a day and having 14 drinks on a Friday and Saturday night," she says.

No one's sure why binge drinking is going up.

Under Healthy People 2010, the government aims to decrease binge drinking to 6 percent of the adult population by 2010. According to the Healthy People data, as many as 17 percent of adults admit to binge drinking within the past month.

Naimi suggests increased alcohol taxes, to make it harder for young drinkers to buy liquor, and wider adoption of laws that penalize people for driving with blood-alcohol levels over .08 percent. Thirty-five states and the District have such standards, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

-- Alicia Ault

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Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company