Making Sense of the Stats on Binge Drinking

Rachel Pomerance
January 17, 2013

The trouble with statistics is that each morsel of information raises an infinite number of questions. To make any sense of it, you often need a good bit of related data to avoid a partial picture that distorts the view.

So, when it comes to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention's recent report on binge drinking in America, U.S. News aims to provide you with a fuller picture of the problem.

For starters, binge drinking is defined, for females, as four or more drinks on one occasion, and, for males, five or more. These quantities are generally considered to raise the blood-alcohol level to (or even well over) .08, the legal limit for driving.

[See Curbing Teen Driving Dangers.]

While binge drinking has long been associated with men and boys, it is, in fact, a common occurrence among females; one in eight women and one in five high school girls engage in the behavior, leading to some 23,000 deaths among American women and girls each year.

"There's been a shift in the drinking culture," where "males and females are considered equal, and unfortunately that has led to a stubborn level of binge drinking among girls," says Aaron White, health scientist administrator at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a division of the National Institutes of Health. To put it more bluntly, "they started to drink more like boys and they're not letting go," he says.

What else?

-- Binge drinking among women and girls is a grave concern--but not a new one. The rates simply haven't declined as much for girls as they have for boys.

In 1992, 36 percent of 12th-grade males and 20 percent of 12th-grade females engaged in binge drinking, according to a survey by the NIAAA. In 2012, the percentage among 12th-grade males dropped to 27 percent, while the percentage of 12th-grade females remained steady. "This decline in binging by males make rates of binging by females stand out much more," White says, explaining, by way of analogy, that "the sun goes down, and there's the stars."

[See Nutrition Tips for College Students.]

Binge drinking among women is most prevalent between the ages of 18 and 24. According to the CDC, 24 percent of that age group binge drinks, followed by 20 percent among high school girls and women between the ages of 25 to 34, after which point the rates decline.

-- The progress being made among young men doesn't mean that men are out of danger. Far from it.

The big spike in binge drinking emerged in the mid-to-late 90s, with overall episodes climbing nearly 30 percent between 1993 and 2001, and remaining relatively constant ever since, says Bob Brewer, an epidemiologist who leads the Alcohol Program in the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. In that context, he says that "some decline in binge drinking among high school boys doesn't mean we've solved this problem among men"--not "by a long shot." One in four men binge drinks, he notes--twice as many as the number of women who binge drink. However, given the particular risks that binge drinking carries for females, the CDC "wanted to highlight women and girls in this particular article," Brewer says, referring to the publication associated with CDC's Vital Signs program, which each month calls attention to a specific public health matter.

[See 6 Dangerous Games Your Kids Should Avoid.]

-- Binge drinking affects women differently than men.

While there may be a culture of equality among the genders when it comes to binge drinking, physiology simply trumps that perception. "Women tend to reach higher blood alcohol levels than men at the same consumption level, even after taking into account differences in body size, food consumption, and other factors," according to the CDC report.

Among other dangers, binge drinking heightens the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and unwanted pregnancy. Furthermore, becoming pregnant while intoxicated can result in a delayed recognition of pregnancy. If a woman doesn't realize she's pregnant and continues to drink, she can bring a range of harm to the developing fetus. In other words...

-- Binge drinking itself isn't the only problem. It's what else happens during the episode.

"The biggest risk of alcohol is what happens when you're intoxicated," White says. "You only have to binge drink once to break your leg, die somehow, make really bad choices that affect your life ... while it is important to look at one's pattern of drinking over time, it remains those individual evenings of drinking when the greatest risks occur."

[See Teaching Your Kids About Sex: Do's and Don'ts.]

-- Binge drinking is not the same as alcohol addiction. And it's much more widespread.

In a Twitter chat on Wednesday, CDC director Thomas Frieden said that "at least 80 percent of binge drinkers are not alcohol dependent. Yet binge drinking accounts for most deaths from alcohol." Furthermore, "binge drinking is by far the most common pattern of excessive drinking," Brewer says. "Over 90 percent of people who are drinking too much are binge drinking."

But, according to White, even for those binge drinkers who aren't alcohol-addicted, the behavior can create a slippery slope. "Alcoholism is a very insidious disease in that it can creep up on you if you're not vigilant," he says. "So this level of binge drinking if it's left unchecked, for a lot of people, could lead to alcoholism."

-- The concern involves not just who drinks, but how much, and how often.

Among those who binge drink, men average about five episodes each month in which they consume 9 drinks per episode. Women who binge drink have roughly three episodes per month in which they have about six drinks per episode.

Those figures not only exceed the government's base level for binge drinking, but they are far from its dietary recommendations. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for moderate consumption among those who drink, which translates to up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

One drink means .6 ounces of pure alcohol, which equates to 5 ounces of wine (with 12 percent alcohol), 12 ounces of beer (with 5 percent alcohol), or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (with 40 percent alcohol), according to the NIAAA.

To learn more about drinking responsibly, whether you or someone you know is engaged in risky behavior, and if so, where to find help, visit the following websites: CDC's fact sheets on binge drinking; the NIAAA's Rethinking Drinking site; Girlshealth.gov; and Check Yourself, a toolkit for teens provided by The Partnership at DrugFree.org.