Binge drinking and heavy drinking on the rise in the U.S.

Analysis at the county level shows dramatic changes in drinking patterns, especially by women, over a 10-year period


SEATTLE — Americans are more likely to be heavy alcohol drinkers and binge alcohol drinkers than in recent years. The increase is in large part to rising rates of drinking among women, based on a new analysis of county-level drinking patterns in the United States.

“We are seeing some very alarming trends in alcohol over consumption, especially among women,” said Dr. Ali Mokdad, a lead author of the study. “We also can’t ignore the fact that in many U.S. counties a quarter of the people, or more, are binge drinkers.”

The study “Drinking patterns in US counties from 2002 to 2012” from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington is the first to track trends in alcohol use at the county level in the U.S. Focused on Americans aged 21 and older, the study found that in 2012, 8.2 percent of all Americans were considered heavy drinkers and 18.3 percent were binge drinkers.

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The CDC defines binge drinking as consuming four drinks or more for women and five drinks or more for men on a single occasion at least once during the past month. Since 2005, binge drinking has increased 8.9 percent across the U.S.

Binge drinking is commonly associated with a higher risk for serious bodily harm, such as injuries, alcohol poisoning and acute organ damage. Heavy drinking is considered a risk factor for longer-term conditions, such as liver cirrhosis and cardiovascular disease.

Nationwide, women showed a much faster escalation in binge drinking than men, with rates rising 17.5 percent between 2005 and 2012; men, on the other hand, saw rates of binge drinking increase by 4.9 percent.

These rising rates of heavy and binge drinking starkly contrast with America’s trends for drinking any alcohol, which have remained largely unchanged over time (56 percent of people in the US consumed any alcohol in 2005 and 2012).

These county-level findings, which can be explored with IHME’s US Health Map data visualization tool http://www.healthdata.org/data-visualization/us-health-map, highlight the need for more locally focused alcohol policies and programs. Madison County, Idaho, had the lowest levels of binge drinking in 2012 (5.9 percent), while Menominee, Wisconsin, had the highest rates of binge drinking (36 percent among residents).  For heavy drinking, Hancock County, Tenn., had the fewest heavy drinkers (2.4 percent of its population) and Esmeralda County, Nev., recorded the largest proportion of heavy drinkers (22.4 percent).

Some regional drinking patterns emerged at the national level, with several areas in the West, Midwest, and New England showing higher levels of alcohol consumption, particularly in comparison with a number of counties in the southern United States and Utah. But beyond regional comparisons, the most striking disparities in alcohol use were found within state lines.

“In the U.S., state-level results often mask the full range of what people are experiencing health-wise,” said IHME’s Director Dr. Christopher Murray. “When you can map out what’s happening county by county, over time, and for men and women separately, that’s also when you can really pinpoint specific health needs and challenges – and then tailor health policies and programs accordingly.”

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