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Inflating Binge Drinking Statistics

The biggest problem with binge drinking statistics is that the definition keeps changing. Over the last few decades it’s gone from somewhat vague to an increasingly narrow definition. Each change in the definition increases the number of binge drinkers. It’s not that more people are binge drinking necessarily, but that more people fall under the definition as they lower it and lower it.

At the bottom of an NPR story, Binge Drinking: A Big Problem, Especially For The Prosperous, there’s a strange little video about binge drinking put together by the CDC. In it, they reveal some disturbing ways of looking at what it means to binge drink.

The most recent way our government defines binge drinking is “[f]our or more drinks within a few hours for a woman and five or more for a man.” That actually narrows yet again, as recently as the last few years it’s been “five or more drinks in a row,” which tends to imply more speed. Adding “within a few hours” means even drinking at a leisurely pace makes you a binge drinker. I wrote more about this shift last year in a post, Inventing Binge Drinking.

The CDC video further claims that “half of all alcohol consumed by adults in the US is binge drinking.” Wow, that’s pretty remarkable, especially if you consider that according to the DOJ only 54% of adults drink alcohol. We’re now a nation of binge drinkers. You’d think a society where 1 in 2 people drinking is on a bender would be more noticeable. But look out your door or window and unless there’s a car alarm going off, it’s more likely you’ll hear crickets and birds chirping, not the devastation implied by that alarming factoid.

They also claim “1.5 billion episodes of binge drinking” take place each year in the U.S. That’s 5 for every man, woman and child in the country, or 6.25 times for every adult. If we assume the DOJ’s statistic that 46% of adults don’t drink alcohol, then that’s 11.6 for every adult who does imbibe, or nearly once a month. That’s a lot of benders. Or is it? Is having five drinks less than once a month really an alarming societal problem? I go to a beer dinner probably at least once a month and most are at least five courses. That makes me a binge drinker, but I’m hardly a danger to society because of it. Clearly, for some individuals persistent binge drinking is a serious problem, but the people who fall into that category represent a very small minority of all drinkers.

Toward the end of the NPR article, they have this to add.

The problem, though bad, isn’t a lot worse than it used to be. In 1993, the CDC says, about 14 percent of adults had gone on drinking binges. But as Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the CDC put it, “Because binge drinking is not recognized as a problem, it has not decreased in 15 years.”

That’s a pretty glaring inconsistency. On one hand, the CDC claims that “half of all alcohol consumed by adults in the US is binge drinking” but only “14 percent of adults had gone on drinking binges.” But my favorite howler is the statement that “binge drinking is not recognized as a problem.” What planet is he living on, because neo-prohibitionists and the health, university and government research communities, not to mention all the treatment and addiction businesses that stand to make more money if the problem keeps increasing, have been screaming about the perils of binge drinking as long as I’ve been an adult, and probably longer. And the hue and cry has only increased in recent decades. But this just serves to prove that binge drinkers aren’t born, they’re created … by statistics.

But wait, it gets worse. According to the CDC video, the NIAAA now defines binge drinking as “consumption that raises blood-alcohol content to .08%.” That’s right folks “binge drinking” and being “drunk” are now exactly the same! Then they go on to say that binge drinkers are “14 times more likely to drive drunk.” Duh, if you define binge drinking as getting drunk, then that’s a self-fulfilling statistic, isn’t it? But it’s pretty alarming that a government agency’s standard for binge drinking is simply drinking enough to raise your BAC to 0.08%.

Other interesting tidbits include that statistic that 70% of binge drinkers are 26 or older and that 80% of binge drinkers are not alcoholics. Of course they’re not alcoholics if all they have to do to binge drink is get drunk once. And if most are legal adults, why the insistence later in the video to maintain 21 as the minimum age of consumption?

Naturally, they propose all the same old chestnuts to “fix” the problems they just created by inflating the statistics. Nothing new is ever proposed. Of course, none of the proposals ever work, either, wherever they’ve been implemented. Here’s the CDC recommendations.

  1. Increase alcohol taxes
  2. Close places that sell alcohol, reducing their number
  3. Close the remaining outlets earlier
  4. Enforce the laws that prohibit underage drinking

But by continually widening the net and artificially adding to the number of people that are considered binge drinkers, it lessens the chances of actually helping the people who truly do need help. All they do is increasingly demonize alcohol manufacturers and criminalize law-abiding people. It’s as if all of the organizations that are anti-alcohol or who make their money from addiction, be it through treatment, medications or whatever, need to keep the issue a dangerous one and have to keep it just bad enough so the money keeps flowing. So it becomes a game of creating the perception of effectiveness while the problem remains perpetually, and conveniently, elusive.

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