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Heavy Drinking and Alcoholism – They’re not the Same Problem

Most people assume that anyone who regularly drinks too much is either alcohol dependent or an alcoholic. This is a widely held belief for a number of complex and culturally engrained reasons that there’s simply not enough time to parse out at the moment.

Heavy Drinking vs Alcoholism

In an interesting twist, new research suggests that most heavy drinkers are not likely to qualify as alcohol dependent or alcoholic.

How does the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism assess alcohol use disorder?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), reported data that has caught even some healthcare professionals by surprise.

According to the agencies’ research, 89.8 percent of excessive drinkers are not alcohol dependent. Furthermore, the study found that one in three adults is an excessive drinker and only about one in 30 is alcohol dependent.

“This study shows that contrary to popular opinion, most people who drink too much are not alcohol dependent or alcoholics,” said Dr. Robert Brewer, a lead author on the report.

However unexpected this news, do not mistake it for a license to kick your alcohol consumption up a couple of notches. Excessive drinking is still a public health crisis in the United States.

The CDC defines excessive or binge drinking as four or more drinks in one sitting for women and five for men; eight or more drinks a week for women and 15 or more drinks for men.

What Are the Statistics Surrounding Excessive or Binge Drinking?

  • 88,000 deaths a year due to alcohol related complications, such as breast cancer, liver disease, heart disease, violence, alcohol poisoning and car crashes
  • 29 percent of the population qualify as excessive drinkers
  • Binge drinking is more common among 18 – 34 years olds, but binge drinkers 65 and older report binge drinking more often
  • In 2010, alcohol related health issues cost the U.S. $249 billion. Of that, $191 billion was from binge drinkers

What’s particularly notable about the study’s findings is the approach to treatment healthcare professionals should take for individuals that drink too much, but are not dependent. Obviously, people suffering from addiction and dependence to alcohol are in a different category all together.

For them, medically assisted detox followed by inpatient treatment and counseling might be necessary. Though the disease of alcoholism and addiction is a struggle, it is treatable. People can recover and regain their personal and professional lives everyday.

For the excessive drinker that’s not dependent, the CDC suggests a more personal and local approach.

For instance, studies show that this category of alcohol drinker is likely to make better choices and curb excessive consumption after a gentle prodding by their doctor.

Other remedies to curtail the damage of excessive drinking are raising the taxes on alcohol and re-zoning areas to limit the number of drinking establishments in a given area. Yes, we’re talking to you, college towns.

Despite the CDC’s findings, the fact of the matter is drinking too much alcohol is bad for our physical and mental health. Whether it’s alcoholism or excessive drinking, there are always underlying issues that drive our destructive behaviors.

Acknowledging that we need help to make a change, either from our physician or a recognized treatment facility is the hardest, but most rewarding step.


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