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The CDC Thinks 5 Drinks = Binge Drinking

Definition of “binge“, from Merriam-Webster:

a: a drunken revel : spree b: an unrestrained and often excessive indulgence <a buying binge> c: an act of excessive or compulsive consumption (as of food)

A couple of weeks ago, the CDC released a supposedly alarming report saying that 17% of Americans went on at least one drinking binge in the month before. The report is based on a survey which took place in 2010 and measured three drinking parameters:

  • prevalence: the percent of people in a group that binge drink
  • frequency: the number of times a month they go on a binge
  • intensity: the number of drinks per binge

One of the main issues people have with the study is that binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in a sitting for a guy — four for a woman. That definition was clearly thought up by someone who has never consumed alcohol and is at least somewhat ridiculous, because five beers over the stretch of a football game won’t even get most people legally intoxicated, much less on par with “a drunken revel.” (The blood alcohol concentration for a 180lb man after drinking five beers in 3.5 hours is about 0.05%).  The main issue is the terms of the definition, which uses a vague “drinks per sitting” measure instead of the more precise “drinks per hour.” For example, five beers in a one-hour sitting is probably binge drinking; five beers in a five-hour sitting… not so much. And the survey treats both of those events as if they were the same.

Thanks to raw data though, the CDC’s poor definition is not quite as important: the actual number of drinks consumed are present, even if the length of the drinking sessions is missing.  The prevalence and frequency statistics, however, are just given in terms of binge drinking (e.g., percentage that binge drink), so due to the definition issues, for the purposes of the below, take the “binge” part with a grain of salt. Armed with that, here are the most interesting numbers:

  • Twice as many men as women binge drink: 23% vs 11%, and 9 drinks in a sitting vs 6
  • As people get older, fewer of them go on binges: from almost 30% for younger people to 3% for retirees
  • As people get older, their binges get less intense: from 9 drinks for younger people to 6 for older ones
  • The 3% of old people that do binge though, do it more often than any other age group: more than five times a month, vs four times a month for the rest, who probably binge every weekend
  • A higher percentage of whites and hispanics binge drink, but otherwise the races are pretty similar
  • A higher percentage of well-educated people binge drink, but they do so less often, and with less drinks per sitting: 7 drinks, 3 times a month for college grads vs 9 drinks, 5.5 times a month for high school dropouts. But only 14% of dropouts binge, as opposed to 18% of college grads.
  • Same story for rich people — although the number of drinks (around 8) per sitting is similar for all income ranges, more rich people binge, but less often: 20% of those making over 75k$/year binge 4 times a month, vs 16% of those making under 25k$/year, who binge 5 times a month
  • More of the population binges in the north, and less in the south; the rest of the country is mixed
  • Wisconsin has the highest population of bingers, at 25.6%; Nebraska and D.C. followed, with 22.3% and 21.9%, respectively.
  • Utah and West Virginia have the lowest population, at 10.9% each. Arkansas was next, with 11.8%
  • Bingers in Wisconsin also drink most: 9 drinks per sitting. Hawaii and West Virginia followed, with 8.7 each. So not many people drink in West Virginia, but those that do, are probably from Wisconsin.

The CDC’s recommendations all revolve around reducing the supply of alcohol by making it more expensive and less available: raising prices via sin taxes and selling it in less places and during fewer hours. The reason given for these recommendation is that binge drinking causes around 40,000 deaths a year. To add perspective to that figure, according to another CDC report:

  • about the same number of people kill themselves
  • twice as many die from Alzheimers
  • three times as many die from accidents (118,043)
  • 14 times as many die from cancer
  • 15 times as many die from heart disease (595,444)

In that report, binge drinking itself is not considered a cause of death, because it’s secondary: it may lead to accidents, but is not the immediate reason someone dies. From CDC, via NPR