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Are You a Risky Drinker?

Alcoholism Only Small Part of U.S. Alcohol Abuse, Experts Say

What Is Risky Drinking? continued...

For men this means more than 14 drinks per week, or more than four drinks on any occasion. For women this means more than seven drinks per week or more than three drinks on any occasion.

What is a "drink?" It is one 12-ounce beer, or one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1-1/2 ounces of 80-proof spirits.

Who's counting? Everyone who drinks should, says panelist Marc Schuckit, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the alcohol and drug treatment program and the alcohol research center at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System.

Safe drinking means not exceeding the recommended number of drinks. It isn't safe drinking if you drink to reach a certain effect, Schuckit says.

"A variety of things contribute to risky drinking," he notes. "One is the hollow leg -- the relative resistance to alcohol. People who are resistant to the effects of alcohol will drink more and hang out with people who drink more. So setting limits would control alcoholism."

At first, drinking makes a person feel good. After too much risky drinking, a person doesn't feel good until he or she has a drink.

"People say it doesn't feel good anymore, but I can't stop," Willenbring says. "At this point, people are not drinking to get high anymore. They are drinking to reduce stress. Once these changes occur, they may be permanent."

Current Treatment Inadequate

The health care system is failing people with drinking problems, Willenbring says.

"Only 24% of those who have ever had alcohol dependency seek treatment," he notes. "Only 12% of those who seek it ever receive any form of treatment. It is disconnected from mainstream health care. And reimbursement is almost impossible to obtain."

Even when people get treatment -- and can pay for it -- it's usually not good enough.

"Minimum standards for treatment of alcohol disorders are met only 11% of the time," he says. "That's the worst of all major causes of death in the U.S."

In fact, it's the worst treated of all major medical conditions, reports panelist Eric Goplerud, PhD, professor of health policy at George Washington University School of Public Health in Washington, D.C.

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