A new study was just published online, and will be in print in next month’s journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research with the nearly impenetrable title Sociodemographic Predictors of Pattern and Volume of Alcohol Consumption Across Hispanics, Blacks, and Whites: 10-Year Trend (1992–2002). CNN simplified the story’s title, originally from Health.com, to More Americans Drinking Alcohol. To me the most interesting thing about this is that it’s really two stories, one positive and one sort of negative, and it’s all in the way it’s framed.
As presented on CNN, the story begins with mainly the positive aspects of the story. More Americans Drinking (Alcohol) summarizes the study like this:
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.
So that’s good news, especially considering that moderate drinking is healthier for you than abstaining or over-indulging. So if more people are hitting the sweet spot, so to speak, that should be good news, eh?
Oh, but wait, here comes the other shoe:
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.
“We need to address this increase, which may be associated with alcohol abuse,” says Dr. Deborah Dawson, Ph.D., a staff scientist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in Bethesda, Maryland. “We may need focus our attention on preventive measures that target binge drinking.”
Of course the main problem with all that alarm over binge drinking is the definition itself. Five drinks in one day is an absurd way to define binge drinking. Originally it was essentially a bender with no limits. Little by little the definition has been whittled down by organizations and our government keen to have a number they could use in compiling statistics. But that also means a five-course beer dinner creates an event where every single diner is a binge drinker. Even the new Dietary Guidelines just released have changed the standard from daily to weekly allowable amounts and changed the daily standard to four drinks for a male, so long as the weekly limit is not reached. So that means four drinks in one day is fine, but one more and you’re a dangerous binge drinker. It’s this sort of nonsense that allows neo-prohibitionist groups to use suspect statistics with the government imprimatur to give them more credibility than they rightly deserve.
Then there’s this chestnut:
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 Dr. Stephen Bahr, Ph.D., 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.
I don’t know what planet Bahr lives on, but when my kindergartner is lectured to with MADD propaganda that alcohol is a drug and he comes home with the notion that his parents are drug users because they have a beer with dinner, I’d say there’s plenty emphasis on alcohol misuse. It’s absurd in light of all the anti-alcohol propaganda for anyone to suggest people are drinking more because they haven’t heard it might be bad for them. If anything, they’re preached to death.
The original Health.com piece, Survey: More Americans Drinking Alcohol, is under the section heading Alcoholism, subtly framing the story as if it’s about alcoholism, which of course it’s not. More people drinking does not automatically mean there are more alcoholics or even more people at risk of becoming alcoholics. But framed the way it is, that’s what it seems to presuppose.
Some of the other findings, as reported by Health.com:
- 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.
The study itself only concluded the following, at least in the abstract:
The only common trend between 1992 and 2002 across both genders and 3 ethnic groups was a rise in the proportion of drinkers. There was also a rise in drinking 5 or more drinks in a day (Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics) and drinking to intoxication (Whites and Blacks), but this was limited to those reporting such drinking at least once a month. The reasons for these changes are many and may involve complex sociodemographic changes in the population.
I’m sorry, having five drinks on a given day once a month, or even once a week, is hardly a sign of the fall of civilization, even if a few more are now than they were ten years ago. I’m not even sure it’s all that newsworthy. But for reasons passing understanding — perhaps it’s simply the 24/7 news cycle — it became news and even got picked up by CNN.