In the U.S., Few Heavy Drinkers Are Actually Alcoholics

About 90 percent of people who drink excessively—more than eight drinks a week for women, 15 for men—are not alcohol dependent

man drinking shots
Ben Welsh/Corbis

If you have a glass of wine most nights and a few more drinks on the weekend, you might be skirting dangerously close to being what researchers call an excessive drinker. You may not recognize this because, after all, you don’t have the hallmarks of an alcoholic: increased tolerance, withdrawal or inability to cut down or stop drinking. Turns out, this is a common situation, reports David Beasley for Reuters.

A new study shows that 90 percent of excessive drinkers are not dependent on alcohol. The survey of 138,100 adults in the United States was conducted by the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

However, about one in three adults drinks excessively, the researchers found. To meet that threshold, women need to be downing eight or more drinks per week. For men, it's 15 or more. The survey respondents also reported a similar prevalence of binge drinking (27 percent), which is defined as four or more drinks at a time for woman and five or more for men.

The overall number of excessive and binge drinkers may even be higher. People tend to under-report this kind of behavior, the researchers note. 

Being free of alcoholism doesn’t mean that all those excessive drinkers are off the hook. As the name implies, the pattern isn’t a good one, reports Allison Aubrey for NPR. She interviewed Robert Brewer, a study co-author and epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control:

[From] a health perspective, the more people drink to excess, the higher their risks. Brewer points to a host of diseases that are linked to excessive alcohol use over time. "This could include breast cancer, for example, liver disease, liver cancer, heart disease," to name a few.

Excessive alcohol consumption causes 88,000 deaths each year. "[The] study shows that combating excessive drinking as a public health problem needs to go beyond focusing only on alcoholism, a chronic medical condition," writes Elahe Izadi for The Washington Post

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