Many of us drink, and many of us drink too much. What’s worse, we continue to do so while others join us as problem drinkers. Those are the perhaps-not-surprising findings of a Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) study published in the Journal of Substance Use today.
“Some people just stop drinking too much, but most continue for years, and others not drinking too much will begin doing so during adulthood,” said lead author Richard Saitz, professor of community health sciences at BUSPH, in a news release. “Public health and clinical messages need repeating, particularly in young adulthood. Once is not enough.”
The study’s principal findings:
- About 40 percent of adults in the United States who drink alcohol do so in amounts that risk health consequences;
- 73 percent of those drinking risky amounts were still doing so two to four years later,
- meanwhile, 15 percent of those not drinking risky amounts began to.
Starting to drink too much was associated with being younger, transitioning to legal drinking age, being male and white, and smoking and drug use, among other social factors.
“These findings suggest that not only do many people who drink, drink amounts associated with health consequences, but that without intervention they are likely to continue to do so,” Saitz says. “Screening or self-assessments, and counseling, feedback, or public health messaging have roles in interrupting these patterns. The predictors we identified may help target those efforts.”
The researchers used data collected by interview from a nationally representative sample of more than 34,000 adults in the U.S. who completed the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions in 2001-2002 and again in 2004-2005.
The survey assessed participants’ drinking in the past month using a well-validated interview tool. “At-risk use” was defined as more than 14 drinks per week on average or more than 4 on an occasion for men, and more than 7 per week or more than 3 on an occasion for women.
The biggest predictor of transitioning to at-risk alcohol use was younger age, particularly among participants who were under the drinking age at the time of the first survey. Other factors were being male, not married, becoming divorced or separated, being in the military, being in good or excellent health, smoking, drug use, and having an alcohol use disorder. The researchers found predictors of not transitioning to at-risk use were being black, reporting more stressful life experiences, having children between the first and second rounds of the survey, and unemployment.
Predictors of continuing to drink too much were also being younger, male, having an alcohol use disorder, and using tobacco or other drugs. Being Black and/or Hispanic, receiving alcohol use disorder treatment, and having children between the two rounds of the survey were predictors of transitioning to lower-risk use.
The study complements statistics compiled by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Its 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 86.4 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime; 70.1 percent reported that they drank in the past year; 56.0 percent reported that they drank in the past month.
In 2015, 26.9 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month; 7.0 percent reported that they engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month, according to the institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.
Rethinking your drinking
NIAAA’s website features an interactive guide, Rethinking Drinking, that helps you estimate how much alcohol you drink and providing tips on cutting back.