CDC Vital Signs: Reducing Binge Drinking

Jan 13, 2012, 4:28 PM, Posted by

The January 2012 issue of Vital Signs, the monthly health indicator report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), finds that more than 38 million U.S. adults binge drink an average of four times a month and the most drinks they consume, on average, is eight.

Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men. Excessive alcohol consumption, including binge drinking, causes more than 80,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

The Vital Signs report is based on the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS), which includes self-reporting about binge drinking within the last thirty days. The report includes data on 458,000 U.S. adults aged 18 years and older. The numbers are higher than for the year before because, for the first time, the information includes cell phone users. Researchers have found higher rates of binge drinking among cell phone users because they tend to be disproportionately younger males.

The report has some startling numbers:

  • Binge drinking is more common among young adults ages 18 to 34, but people age 65 and older who report binge drinking, do so more often—an average of five to six times a month.
  • Binge drinking is more common among those with household incomes of $75,000 or more, but the number of drinks consumed per binge drinking occasion is significantly higher among those with household incomes of less than $25,000—a whopping eight to nine drinks.

Dafna Kanny, PhD, an author of the report, who is an epidemiologist in the division of Adult and Community Health at CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, told NewPublicHealth that much of the binge drinking problem in the U.S. stems from the fact that “alcohol is relatively cheap, widely available, heavily promoted and too often not seen as a public health problem, which makes it a behavior of choice.”

Kanny says strong local and state alcohol polices, such as fewer outlets and hours for alcohol sales, and stricter penalties for selling alcohol to minors, can help reduce binge drinking. Kanny says the Alcohol Policy Information System, a resource from the National Institutes of Health, is an excellent source of ideas on alcohol policies that local and state governments can implement.

The silver bullet, says Kanny, would be policies that affect the most people with the least amount of efforts, such as alcohol-related policies from CDC’s Guide to Community Preventive Services.

Alcohol consumption is also impacted by liquor firms’ efforts in social media. The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has recently released a four-part YouTube movie that looks at the industry’s push into digital marketing and a new brochure that looks at underage youth exposure to alcohol marketing in magazines, on radio and television and on social marketing platforms. For example, ten leading alcohol brands have more than 16.5 million people "liking" their Facebook brand pages.

“[Alcohol] brands are now taking their messages... to social media platforms such as YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook,” said David Jernigan, director of the Center. “As teens are early adopters of social media and there are viral elements of this media, parents need to be more aware of this marketing and educate their children about the real harms of underage drinking in spite of the industry’s message of glamour and allure.”

The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth was launched in 2002 at Georgetown University with funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Center moved to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2008 and is currently funded by the CDC.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.