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CDC: Binge Drinking 'Huge U.S. Health Problem'

Binge Drinking Rates Highest in Wisconsin, Lowest in Tennessee
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 5, 2010 -- Binge drinking is a "huge public health problem" in the U.S., yet most of us don't know it's a problem, the CDC today announced.

Because 80% of binge drinkers are not alcoholics, it's not recognized as a problem, CDC Director Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, said today at a news teleconference.

And on the face of it, binge drinking doesn't seem so terrible. A binge, as defined by the CDC, is having several drinks -- four for women and five for men  -- in a couple of hours. Anyone who's done this even once in the last month is a binge drinker.

But binge drinking is worse than it sounds. The average binge drinker puts down eight drinks in those two hours, not just four or five. Younger drinkers slam down even more than eight drinks on average, says Robert Brewer MD, MPH, head of the CDC's alcohol program.

The CDC calculates that binge drinkers account for more than half of the 79,000 annual alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. and for two-thirds of the 2.3 million years of potential life lost in 2001-2005. Six percent of all alcohol-attributed deaths -- 4,675 per year -- are in people under age 21.

"Because binge drinking is not recognized as a problem, it has not decreased in 15 years," Frieden said.

Frieden and Brewer said the short-term risks of binge drinking include car crashes, violence (including child abuse), risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancy. Long-term risks include liver disease, cancer, stroke, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.

"Drinking at a high level like this, consistently, can be related to a wide risk of health problems," Brewer said at the news conference. "We do not consider binge drinking at any level safe. It is like smoking in that regard."

Binge Drinking Statistics

Nationwide self-reported telephone surveys of adults and teens show that in 2009:

  • Among the 41.8% of high school students who drink, 60.9% are binge drinkers. Overall, one in four high school students binge drink -- and that number should be higher, as the teen study defined binge drinking as five drinks for both males and females instead of the national definition of four drinks for females and five drinks for males.
  • 15.2% of Americans report binge drinking, with rates ranging from 6.8% of people in Tennessee to 23.9% of people in Wisconsin.
  • Binge drinking is more common among adults age 18-24 (25.6%), adults age 25-34 (22.5%), among men (20.7%), and among whites (16%).
  • People with annual household incomes of $75,000 or more are more likely to binge drink (19.3%).
  • From 1993 to 2009, binge drinking decreased among high school boys but remained about the same in high school girls. There was no overall change in binge drinking for adults.

But there is likely to be underreporting in these statistics. People underreport how much they really drink -- by a lot. Overall drinking reported to the CDC accounts for only 22% to 32% of alcohol consumption based on state alcohol sales.

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