Binge drinking, risks common far beyond frat houses and the young

Posted May 7, 2018 1:56 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- Visit almost any college campus and you'll find widespread binge drinking at football tailgating, fraternity parties and even inside dormitories. But a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds heavy drinking continues long after the college years and well into adulthood.

More than 37 million Americans, or one in six, reported binge drinking about once per week in 2015, according to the recently released CDC study. Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in one setting for women, or five or more for men.

But the study found binge drinkers, on average, down even more: seven drinks per episode. This all adds up to about 17.5 billion total binge drinks consumed by U.S. adults in 2015, or about 470 binge drinks per binge drinker.

And although binge drinking is more common among adults between 18 and 34, half of the total binge drinks were consumed by adults 35 and older.

"This (study) tells us adults are consuming a huge amount of binge drinks per year," said Dr. Robert Brewer, lead researcher in the Alcohol Program at the CDC, and one of the co-authors of the study about binge drinking published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. "And from a public health standpoint, the total number of binge drinks is of concern because the risk of harm goes up with the amount (of alcohol) binge drinkers consume."

Moms, dads, working professionals. Seniors. Excessive drinking is taking place at neighborhood pools, dinner parties, restaurants, and yes, bars and clubs, but also in living rooms and backyard decks across the country. American culture often portrays alcohol as harmless fun, and sends a message that's it OK, maybe even funny for moms to turn to wine to get through the day.

NBC News' "Megyn Kelly TODAY" recently featured two mothers, now more than four years sober, who opened up about dealing with "mommy burnout" by drinking and how a few glasses of wine evolved into binge drinking, mental health issues and even driving while intoxicated.

"My kids say they like mom better without alcohol," said mother and psychotherapist Kelley Kitley, who was joined by writer and mother Laura McKowen.

On her blog, McKowen shares her own experiences with binge drinking, and puts a spotlight on cultural norms encouraging heavy drinking. In one blog post, she points to a tagline for a wine festival aimed at moms: "Baby on the hips, wine on the lips."

"I saw alcohol as an exciting, fun, basically innocent part of life for a long time. It was a right and a privilege of being an adult. Sure, you could get sick if you had too much, but wasn't that kind of the point sometimes (wink, wink)? ... It's what you did in college," writes McKowen, who lives in the Boston area.

"And what you obviously needed to get through parenting. Especially as a mom. Why else would they make 'Mommy's Time Out' wine? Finally, we're all in on how craz-ay this 21st-century parenting thing is -- so let's just let er' rip! ... Maybe, just maybe, we've all been duped. Maybe, our beloved booze is as good times and benign as we thought smoking was back when it was promoted by doctors and splayed all over ads with taglines like 'Be happy, go Lucky!'"

While the CDC has examined binge drinking in the past, this new study more deeply captures the scope of the problem, exactly how many drinks are consumed in binges, and what that adds up to over a year.

Here are some other key findings:

-- Socioeconomic factors play a role. Binge drinking is more prevalent among college graduates with household incomes above $75,000. But those with lower income who binge tend to drink more heavily.

-- There were some geographic differences. Total annual binge drinks per binge drinker were generally higher in the Mississippi River Valley than in other regions. The highest annual number of personal binge drinks was reported by drinkers in Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky and Hawaii.

-- Georgia is just shy of the national average of binge drinkers (16 percent for Georgia compared to 17 percent nationally). But those who binge drink in Georgia tend to imbibe more often, 58 times a year compared to 53 nationally).

-- Binge drinking is about twice as prevalent among men than it is among women.

-- Binge drinking accounts for more than half of the 88,000 U.S. deaths that result annually from excessive drinking.

Drinking too much carries short-term and long-term health risks. When you drink heavily, you increase your risk of injuries and death from motor vehicle accidents, drowning and falls. Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to serious health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease and liver disease.

So are binge drinkers alcoholics? For the most part, no. The CDC estimates 9 in 10 binge drinkers are not alcohol dependent, or alcoholics. And while many factors influence binge drinking, Brewer said binge drinkers tend to be influenced by their environment and social settings.

Alcohol is also readily available and relatively cheap. It makes sense: If you are at a neighborhood gathering to watch a football game and everyone around you is downing drinks, you are more likely to join in.

While Brewer said people should not be "binge drinking at all, period," he also stressed the CDC is not telling all adults who drink to necessarily stop drinking altogether. Instead, he said, if alcohol is consumed it should be in moderation and in line with dietary guidelines -- up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. However, some groups -- youth under age 21, women who are pregnant or might be pregnant, and people with medical problems that could be made worse by drinking -- shouldn't drink at all, he said.

Brittney Newton, coordinator of Voices for Prevention (a statewide advocacy initiative and coalition that's part of the nonprofit Cobb Community Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse) said the new CDC study can help raise awareness about the problem of heavy drinking.

"One thing we really need to recognize is binge drinking is not a rite of passage and something we should be concerned about," she said. "We also need to recognize we have a collective responsibility."

Newton suggested people take a look at their own drinking and any heavy drinking around them. Everyone, she said, can take steps to help discourage binge drinking and lower the associated dangers.

For example, if you notice intense drinking at your community pool, consider contacting your homeowners association to ban alcohol during the day and limit drinking to evening hours, she said. If you are hosting a party with drinking, call it an "Uber Fest" from the get-go to send the message you don't want anyone even considering drinking and driving.

And remember, she said, parents strongly influence their children's attitudes about drinking. By boozing it up around their kids, parents normalize and even encourage the same behavior by their kids. The best way to prevent binge drinking, she said, is to stop it from happening in the first place.

"Parents may think they are the last people their kids will listen to when it comes to drinking but all evidence says teenagers do listen to their parents on this. ... Have those conversations with your kids about going to a party and if a keg shows up at a party and they are uncomfortable, establish a code word so parents know when their kids want to be picked up."

Meanwhile, some colleges including the University of Georgia have seen drinking rates go down over the past five years. More than half of incoming students -- about 55 percent -- identify themselves as abstainers or non-drinkers (while some of those may have had a drink in high school, they do not plan to drink in college).

This upward trend of non-drinkers marks a cultural shift in recent years, according to Liz Prince, director of health promotion at UGA's University Health Center. One major driver of lower drinking rates is the students themselves.

As UGA becomes highly competitive and enrolls some of the most high-achieving students in the state, these students want to keep their scholarships and do well in school -- and expect their university to offer healthy options for fun and to help fight stress, according to Prince.

Prince said it's UGA's job to offer comprehensive programming to help curb and prevent heavy drinking as well as provide healthy alternatives. As soon as kids arrive on campus in the fall, the university now offers everything from art-under-the-stars events to outdoor movies to gourmet cooking classes -- all ways for college kids to have a good time without alcohol.



When it comes to binge drinking, a little knowledge often goes a long way. J. Aaron Johnson, interim director at the Institute of Public and Preventive Health at Augusta University, said simply knowing the definition of safe drinking limits can lead to a reduction in drinking. Johnson, an expert in substance abuse prevention and treatment, provided the following four tips to avoid binge drinking:

1. Change your environment. Avoid the places (bars, football tailgates) where you tend to drink heavily.

2. Change your activities. Find an activity that you enjoy that does not center around drinking. Take a cooking class, go to the movies, go for a walk or play tennis. Find healthy alternatives to activities with heavy drinking.

3. Change your friends. Friends who binge drink will often pressure others to do the same. It may not be easy at first, but try to find friends whose drinking levels are in line with your goals.

4. Set your limit before going out and stick to it. If you know the safe daily limit for men is no more than four drinks in one day (according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism definition of safe drinking), set that as your limit and switch to a non-alcoholic drink once you've reached that limit. Tell someone else your limit and ask them to hold you accountable.

Note: U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that if alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation -- up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

Helena Oliviero writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: holiviero(at)

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