To health officials, binge drinking—for men, five or more drinks over two hours, and four or more for women—is a line that marks risky alcohol consumption. But it's also a line that can obscure far riskier drinking, by not accounting for people who go well beyond that threshold.
New research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) looks closer at the extent of what people are actually doing when they drink. Researchers looked at two sets of data, one from 2001-2002 and the other from 2012-2013; these surveyed 42,748 and 36,083 US adults respectively.
Participants were asked the maximum number of drinks they'd consumed on any day in the past year. Researchers used their responses to analyze three levels of binge drinking. Five to nine drinks for men and four to seven for women per occasion was defined as Level I—standard binge drinking. Level II was 10 to 14 drinks for men, eight to 11 for women, over the same time span; Level III was 15 or more drinks for men, 12 or more for women.
That's a lot of numbers, but the goal is to better quantify binge drinking. It's more nuanced than simply having five or more drinks, because anyone familiar with alcohol can tell you there's a big difference between six drinks and 15. The survey showed that people who'd reached the Level III threshold had higher odds of driving after drinking, getting into fights or getting injured, and being arrested. (That was after adjusting for alcohol use disorder, which strongly predicted binge drinking.) In other words, they were more likely to experience all of the negative consequences associated with extreme drinking.
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Researchers also found an increasing percentage of respondents describing extreme binge drinking. In 2001-2002, 23 percent of adults reported binge drinking in the past year; 15 percent of those peaked at Level I, 5 percent at Level II, and 3 percent at Level III. In 2012-2013, those percentages increased significantly: 33 percent were bingeing, with 20 percent, 8 percent, and 5 percent bingeing at Levels I, I, and III, respectively. That means 13 percent of the respondents had consumed more than twice the number of drinks that qualifies as binge drinking. Apply that percentage to the US population of adults 18 years and older, and you get 32 million people.
"This important study reveals that a large number of people in the United States drink at very high levels and underscores the dangers associated with such 'extreme' binge drinking," George F. Koob, director of the NIAAA, said in a statement. "Of the nearly 90,000 people who die from alcohol each year, more than half, or 50,000, die from injuries and overdoses associated with high blood alcohol levels." Researchers also note that while we're justifiably concerned about binge drinking among college students and those underage, the survey suggests binge drinking is a wider problem than that. And it seems to be getting worse.
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