Binge Drinking in America Is a Serious Public Health Issue—Here’s Why

One out of six U.S. adults binge drinks around four times every month.

beers, cheers, hands, drinking

Medically reviewed in September 2019

Updated on September 1, 2019

Binge drinking is the most expensive, most common and most deadly type of extreme alcohol use in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

And it may be more widespread than you think. A 2018 CDC study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that more than 17 percent of U.S. adults admitted to binge drinking. For women, that means having at least four drinks in about two hours, or at least five drinks in two hours for men. On average, each one had 53.1 binge drinking episodes in 2015, involving 7 drinks per binge—or a whopping 467 binge drinks per binge drinker annually. 

It’s not just young adults doing the drinking, either. A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggested that more than 1 in 10 seniors binge drink. To reach their conclusions, researchers analyzed data collected between 2015 and 2017 from nearly 11,000 adults aged 65 and older. They also found that bingers were more likely to be men and had higher rates of tobacco and marijuana use compared to those who don’t binge drink.

What does this mean for Americans? What states are drinking the most, and what can you do about binge drinking? Justin Hatch, LCSW, a social worker at Ogden Regional Medical Center in Utah, shares some insight.

What is binge drinking? 
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a form of drinking that causes blood alcohol concentration levels to rise to 0.08. For women, this usually happens after about four drinks during a two-hour window, and for men, about five drinks in a two-hour window.

No level of drinking is completely risk-free, but if you do drink, experts advise limiting intake to two drinks daily for men and one drink per day for women. The more you go above those guidelines, the greater your risk for serious harms including:

  • Car crashes
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • High blood pressure
  • Alcohol addiction
  • Memory and learning problems
  • Injury or violence, including homicide, suicide and sexual assault

Excessive alcohol intake may also raise your chances of developing certain cancers, including cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.

Stats at a glance
In case the statistics above weren’t convincing enough, here are some other serious numbers from the CDC:

  • While adults of all age groups binge drink, it’s most common among those aged 18 to 34.
  • Men are twice as likely to binge drink as women.
  • Americans who have a combined household income of more than $75,000 are more likely to binge drink.
  • More than 90 percent of those who binge drink admit that they’ve done it in the last 30 days.

Binge drinking is more prevalent in certain states than others. According to a 2017 CDC report, here are the areas with the highest prevalence of binge drinking:

  • North Dakota: 23.3 percent
  • Wisconsin: 22.7 percent
  • District of Columbia: 25.6 percent
  • Montana: 19.5 percent
  • Iowa: 21.1 percent
  • Nebraska: 20.6
  • Illinois: 20.3
  • Alaska: 19.6

Signs of binge drinking
The most obvious sign of binge drinking is abstaining from alcohol for a few days, then drinking four to five drinks within a two-hour time-frame. Other signs include:

  • Drinking more alcohol than you planned to drink
  • Feeling like you’re unable to stop drinking
  • Blacking out or having trouble remembering what happened while drinking
  • Acting dangerously or violently while drinking, like getting into fights or having unprotected sex

The five phases of binge drinking
People who binge drink may not think they have a problem since they aren’t drinking alcohol all the time. But most people with any sort of addiction go through a series of phases, says Hatch.

  1. Pre-contemplative phase: They haven’t recognized they have a problem.
  2. Contemplative phase: They’ve recognized a problem but are unsure about whether they want to stop.
  3. Preparation phase: They start to prepare to make a change.
  4. Action phase: They take the steps needed to recover.
  5. Maintenance phase: They work to maintain their change and cope with any relapses that may occur.

How to handle an individual situation depends greatly on the particular phase. Whatever the phase, move forward with kindness and compassion. “Approach with understanding," Hatch explains. "In most cases, it’s not beneficial to shame the person or give them ultimatums.”

For those in the pre-contemplative phase, the person has to realize that they have a problem. Hatch says you can start the conversation by saying things like, “I'm concerned about you.”

If someone is in the contemplative or preparation phase, encourage them and help them find the help they need. Try pointing them in the direction of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous or Smart Recovery, groups that provide reading materials, online worksheets for reflection and in-person meet-ups and counseling.

Here are some of the other ways you or a loved one can work toward getting binge drinking under control:

  • Be mindful of who you spend time with. Try to avoid situations or people who encourage heavy drinking. You may want to limit your time at bars, restaurants and parties, until you feel comfortable abstaining from alcohol.
  • Keep a list of reasons you want to stop. Writing down the reasons you want to quit binging can help you stay motivated. You can include things like "feeling healthier and more rested," or "having a better attitude."
  • Talk to friends and family. Let someone you trust in on what you’re going through. Share the ups and downs so they can encourage you along the way and lift you up on bad days.
  • Consider taking a break from alcohol. Some binge drinkers find it beneficial to completely abstain from alcohol during the recovery process. If that doesn’t seem like the best option, try limiting how much you drink. You can limit the number of drinks, the types of alcohol you drink or drinking during certain hours of the day.
  • Replace drinking with other activities. During the times you would normally drink, try focusing your energy towards something else that you love, like exercise or meditation.
  • Reward yourself. When you reach a goal (such as going a week without binge drinking or abstaining from drinking during a social event), treat yourself to something you enjoy, like a manicure, a sporting event or a few hours with a good book.

Binge drinking is on the rise—but is preventable
Binge drinking has become part of American culture. We see it in movies, at sporting events and beyond. It’s a growing problem in adults of all ages, and at college campuses around the country. The good news is, there are numerous resources to help you or a loved one overcome binge drinking. The first step is realizing that there is a problem. Then, it’s important to talk about the issue with others and find resources to help you work through it.

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