How Many Americans Binge on Alcohol or Drink Heavily?

Alcohol binging (i.e., binge drinking) and heavy alcohol intake are the two drinking behaviors most firmly linked to short- and long-term exposure to serious, potentially deadly alcohol-related harm. For this reason, public health officials consider tracking the extent of these behaviors as a critical step in estimating nationwide risks from alcohol consumption. In September 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration issued a report detailing the recent level of involvement in binge drinking and heavy drinking among the nation’s preteens, teenagers and adults.

Binge Drinking

An alcohol binge is a single episode of rapid alcohol consumption that leads to a legal, impairing level of drunkenness in a maximum of two hours. As a rule, a man or boy must binge on at least five servings of alcohol in this amount of time to reach a legal state of intoxication. A woman or girl must binge on at least four servings of alcohol to get drunk in a couple of hours. Two American population groups typically binge drink with unusual frequency: young adults in their first years of legally permissible alcohol consumption and underage people below the age of 21 who have no legal right consume alcohol. Current figures indicate that more than nine out of every 10 drinks consumed by an underage drinker are consumed during a binging episode.

Not surprisingly, underage drinkers in general and binge drinkers in particular share a host of serious alcohol-related risks in common. These risks include alcohol poisoning, altered or delayed brain development, altered brain function, sexual and physical assault exposure, motor vehicle crash exposure, participation in unsafe sex, increased odds of developing alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse/alcoholism) and increased odds of getting involved in other forms of substance abuse.

Heavy Drinking

A male alcohol consumer exceeds the common standard for moderate drinking and becomes a heavy drinker by imbibing more than four alcohol servings a day or 14 alcohol servings a week with any regularity (i.e., at least once a month). A female alcohol consumer becomes a heavy drinker by imbibing more than three alcohol servings a day or seven alcohol servings a week on a regular basis. Once-a-month heavy drinkers of both genders increase their odds of eventually receiving an alcohol use disorder diagnosis by roughly 20 percent. Once-a-week heavy drinkers increase their alcohol use disorder risks by about 33 percent, while people who drink heavily more than twice a week boost their risks by roughly 50 percent. Altogether, roughly 25 percent of all current heavy drinkers have alcohol use disorder. People who binge drink frequently can easily also qualify as heavy drinkers.

How Many Americans?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration uses an ongoing yearly project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) to count the number of Americans over the age of 11 who qualify as binge drinkers and/or heavy drinkers. This survey draws its information from tens of thousands of people chosen specifically to reflect the larger overall demographic picture (age, gender, racial/ethnic background, etc.) of preteens, teens and adults who are not homeless or incarcerated in a jail or prison. According to the recently released figures from the 2013 version of the NSDUH, 136.9 million Americans over the age of 11 consume alcohol in the typical month; this number is the equivalent of 52.2 percent of the total U.S. population age 12 or older. Roughly 60.1 million preteens, teens and adults binge drink in the typical month (22.9 percent of the total population), while roughly 16.5 million drink heavily (6.3 percent of the total).

Alcohol consumption, binge drinking and heavy drinking are all much more common among adults age 18 years or older than among preteens and teens between the ages of 12 and 17. Fully 134 million of the nation’s monthly alcohol consumers are adults, while only 2.9 million 12- to 17-year-olds fall into this category. About 58.5 million adults binge drink in the typical month, while just 1.6 million preteens and teens binge drink. Slightly more than 16 million American adults drink heavily in a given month, while just 293,000 12- to 17-year-olds meet the minimum standard for heavy drinking.

It’s worth noting that the National Survey on Drug Use and Health defines heavy drinking as consuming at least five drinks per session five times in a month. This definition differs from the common standard maintained by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and other prominent public health agencies.

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