This is one of those things that’s increasingly pissing me off, because it avoids real problems that some people have with alcohol in favor of trying to turn individual problems into an epidemic. It’s not. If anything, overall consumption of alcohol is decreasing. But it’s hard to get funding, finance addiction clinics and raise money to fight the scourge of alcohol if you don’t make the situation sound as dire as possible.
Take binge drinking, for example. ABC News just did a story (thanks to Julia Herz for tweeting it) about a “new” report claiming that 38 million Americans “binge drink an average four times a month.” Their story, entitled CDC: Millions of Americans are Binge Drinkers, details how the CDC is claiming that 1 in 6 “adults binge drinks about four times a month, and on average the largest number of drinks consumed is eight.” Not only that, but this is apparently on the rise. Here’s what the CDC website has to say.
New estimates show that binge drinking is a bigger problem than previously thought. More than 38 million U.S. adults binge drink, about 4 times a month, and on average the largest number of drinks consumed is eight. Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men over a short period of time.
In the ABC report, Dr. Fulton Crews, director of the Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is quoted in what must be one of the most out-of-touch statements ever made on this subject. “But most people don’t realize that binge drinking is unhealthy.” Seriously? Is there anyone who hasn’t been bombarded with neo-prohibitionist propaganda, whether it’s our government, MADD, Alcohol Justice or some other anti-alcohol group. My kids started receiving the message literally in kindergarten, before they were even able to process it. There isn’t a man or woman alive who believes that drinking too much is good for you.
What people might not know is that what it means to be a “binge drinker” is not as concrete as these “reports” insist. How binge drinking is defined keeps changing, and always it’s narrowing, pulling more people into the circle of binge drinkers, not because they’re suddenly drinking more, but because how it’s defined has changed. I don’t want to repeat myself too much, but I detailed some of the history of this transformation a couple of years ago, in two posts entitled Inflating Binge Drinking Statistics and Son of Binge Drinking Statistics Inconsistencies. And the year before that I wrote about it in Inventing Binge Drinking. What’s clear is that binge drinking went from something somewhat vague — you knew it when you saw it — to ever more specific definitions, the kind that could be quantified and used to alarm people, and, by no small coincidence, be used by anti-alcohol folks in their propaganda.
So yet again the definition seems to be changing. The actual number of “too many” drinks has been somewhat fixed for the last few years at 5 for a man and 4 for a woman. But what keeps changing is the period of time. Initially it was “in a row,” then “within a few hours.” This latest CDC “report” says “in a sitting” and “over a short period of time,” which conceivably could be almost any length of time. At least the ABC report mentions this inconsistency, noting that the definition of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says the alcohol must be consumed in “two hours or less.” That works out to a beer every thirty minutes for a woman, and for a man, one every 24 minutes.
But what’s also absent from their definition of binge drinking is weight. The definition of being considered drunk is always expressed as a calculation combining time, the amount of alcohol consumed and the weight of the person drinking it. But binge drinking never takes that into account, apart from dividing up gender, presumably under the premise that men are generally bigger than women. That reality, of course, is not true in every case. And it may be indelicate to say so, but with our obesity issues as a nation, in theory it should be taking us longer to actually get drunk today than it did twenty years ago. But the reality is that a 200-pound man will take longer to get drunk than a 120-pound man. The same amount of alcohol will effect the two differently. So why should both be defined as binge drinkers if one becomes inebriated but the other does not?
And frankly, there’s another elephant in the room that troubles me, but is rarely, if ever, talked about. If you’re an adult and choose to drink 5 beers in a row, are not driving, and are not in any other way putting yourself or others at risk, why shouldn’t you be allowed to go a little crazy once in a while? You are, actually. It’s not illegal. Although neo-prohibitionists might not like it, there’s nothing to stop you from going on a bender if you feel like it. You shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about it. If it gets out of hand, your friends and family will likely step in. If it doesn’t so what? Who are you hurting? But every time these “reports” come out, the implication is that binge drinking is bad no matter what. But not all bingeing is the same, especially as they now define it. The average beer dinner runs to at least five courses (unless Sean Paxton is doing it), meaning that every single person attending such a beer dinner is considered a dangerous “binge drinker” by the CDC and other government agencies. Is that rational or realistic? Of course not. That’s entirely different from a person who bellies up to the bar and downs five shots of rotgut in rapid succession. Yet both are considered equally dangerous and costing society untold millions of dollars. It’s absurd.
Here’s some more of the statistical data, which it should be noted was complied through a telephone poll, from the CDC’s press release:
As reported in this month’s Vital Signs, the CDC found that those who were thought less likely to binge drink actually engage in this behavior more often and consume more drinks when they do. While binge drinking is more common among young adults aged 18–34 years, binge drinkers aged 65 years and older report binge drinking more often—an average of five to six times a month. Similarly, while binge drinking is more common among those with household incomes of $75,000 or more, the largest number of drinks consumed on an occasion is significantly higher among binge drinkers with household incomes less than $25,000—an average of eight to nine drinks per occasion, far beyond the amount thought to induce intoxication.
Adult binge drinking is most common in the Midwest, New England, the District of Columbia, Alaska, and Hawaii. On average, however, the number of drinks consumed when binge drinking is highest in the Midwest and southern Mountain states (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah), and in some states— such as Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—where binge drinking was less common.
But perhaps where this absurdity becomes most evident is in one of the CDC’s suggestions on how to combat binge drinking, which they list under the heading “what you can do.” Here’s the suggestion: “Follow the U.S. Dietary Guidelines on alcohol consumption; if you choose to drink, do so in moderation — no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.” Except those are NOT the most recent USDA dietary guidelines. Not even close. The 2010 guidelines “defines ‘low-risk’ drinking as no more than 14 drinks a week for men and 7 drinks a week for women with no more than 4 drinks on any given day for men and 3 drinks a day for women.” So that’s two government agencies that can’t agree on safe levels of consumption, and one that’s essentially lying about it to bolster their own point of view. The UK has had similar problems with their guidelines, when it was revealed a few years ago that their government just made up the safe guidelines, which then became carved in stone for the next twenty or more years, despite being literally plucked out of thin air.
Before the angry comments start flooding in again, I should point out that I don’t believe that binge drinking is always a good idea, or that people should do it all the time. I’m not arguing in favor of it. However, I do believe one does have the right to go on a binge if they feel like it (and as long as they’re being safe and aren’t doing so frequently enough to alarm those people closest to them). I do believe that how the CDC and others define binge drinking is ludicrous and does more harm than good. By making almost everyone a binge drinker through their ever-narrowing definition, they’re avoiding dealing with the serial binge drinkers who really are hurting themselves, and possibly others around them. This does nothing to combat the people who really need help. All it does is demonize all alcohol drinkers, making us all the same, which even the most jaded neo-prohibitionist has to admit, we’re not. It’s not how many drinks one has, or over what period of time, it comes down to how one handles themselves in that situation. If you’re a safe and responsible drinker, none of the rest of that even matters. Drink by example, that’s my new motto.
UPDATE: One of the biggest problems with studies like this is how uncritically they’re reported by the mainstream media. The most common way a press release like this one is used is by taking it and maybe changing around the words slightly but essentially just regurgitating it wholesale, not doing any follow up or critically examining it, and accepting all of it without question. That’s not what journalism should be, but in many cases that’s what it’s become, sad to say. Case in point is The Daily’s piece on it, Binge There, Done That. On the plus side, there’s this cool infographic they created based on the data from the telephone polls that the CDC conducted. On the negative side, there’s no key to the data, but the report mentions that it’s the “percent of the population” that are binge drinkers.