The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists excessive alcohol use as one of the leading preventable causes of death, which they define as “premature deaths that could have been avoided.”
The agency, which is a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, conducts research and provides guidance on the health effects of excessive alcohol use, which includes binge drinking.
The CDC defines “excessive alcohol use” as binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any alcohol use by people younger than 21 or who are pregnant.
The definition of binge drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is the consumption of enough alcohol to bring the drinker’s blood alcohol concentration level to .08% or more.
For men, this typically corresponds with consuming five or more drinks on an occasion, and for women, it’s four or more. Binge drinking is considered “the most common and costly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States,” according to a 2018 study published by the CDC.
Heavy drinking is consuming 15 or more drinks per week for a man, or eight or more drinks per week for a woman.
The drinking parameters for pregnant women and young adults have changed over time. In 1981, the US Surgeon General advised pregnant women and those considering pregnancy not to drink at all. This recommendation was reinforced in 2005. In 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act essentially forced states to adopt a legal drinking age of 21.
Data from the 2021 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System showed that nearly one in six adults (15.3%) binge drink. A quarter (25%) of this group did so weekly, on average, and 25% consumed at least eight drinks during a binge occasion. According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 6% of US adults reported heavy drinking.
The CDC tracked the prevalence of adults who reported binge drinking by state in 2021 and found that midwestern states had the highest percentage of people who binge drink. Wisconsin leads the nation with 23.5% of adults reporting binge drinking behavior, while Iowa (21.8%), North Dakota (21.7%), South Dakota (21.1%), Nebraska (20.8%), and Minnesota (19.3%) also make the top of the list.
Beyond the Midwest, Montana has the second highest rate (22.9%). Washington, DC, ranked seventh at 20.7%.
The states with the lowest percentage of adults reporting binge drinking are Oklahoma (12.5%) and Utah (11.7%).
Binge drinking is most common among adults ages 25–34, making up around 25% of those who binge drink. The next highest are those between ages 18–24, who make up 21%. Next are 35–44, at 20%. High schoolers and those between ages 45–64 make up 14%, and people 65 and older make up 5%.
The 2016 Surgeon General’s Report states that 10.6% of drivers report engaging in driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs annually.
Underage drinking is a significant public health problem. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey shows that alcohol is the most commonly used substance among young people in the US.
The CDC lists the short- and long-term health risks of excessive drinking. Most often the result of binge drinking, immediate effects include injuries, violence, alcohol poisoning, risky sexual behaviors, and miscarriage and stillbirth among pregnant women.
Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to an increased risk of various forms of cancer, a weakened immune system, learning and memory problems, poor mental health, social challenges, and alcohol use disorders. The Surgeon General’s Report also lists hypertension and liver disease as potential long-term health effects of heavy drinking.
In 2010, excessive alcohol use created $249 billion in economic costs, according to a 2010 study. This figure includes drains on workplace productivity, the cost of treating alcohol-related healthcare issues, criminal justice expenses, and damage from vehicle collisions due to excessive drinking.
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol misuse or abuse, call the SAMHSA National Helpline, 1-800- 662-HELP (4357), a free, confidential, 24/7, year-round treatment referral and information service for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
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