LEE BOWMAN - Scripps Howard News Service December 22, 2010
The percentage of people drinking alcohol is the highest it has been since the mid-1980s, and binge drinking has also risen sharply.
A recent report from researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health looked at two national health surveys of adults (18 and older) in 1991-92 and 2001-02 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and found that more people overall were drinking at the start of the millennium. More recent data were not available to the researchers.
"The reasons for the uptick vary and may involve complex social and demographic changes to the population, but the findings are clear: More people are consuming alcohol than in the early '90s," said Dr. Raul Caetano, dean of the university's Southwestern School of Medical Professions.
"Drinking" was defined during both survey periods as having consumed at least 12 drinks with at least 0.6 ounces of any kind of alcohol within the past year. Anyone who had consumed less than that much alcohol or said they never drank was classified as a nondrinker.
By that definition, drinking was up 5 percent to 7 percent during that decade among men of all ethnic groups, so that 64 percent of white men, 60 percent of Hispanic men and 53 percent of black men were drinking. Among women, the rate rose by 8 percent to 9 percent, to 47 percent of whites, 32 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of blacks.
Those numbers seem to fit closely with a mid-summer Gallup survey that found 67 percent of adults drank any alcohol at all, versus totally abstaining. That was the highest drinking rate since 1985.
The government surveys showed binge drinking --having more than five drinks in one day -- increased among all ethnic groups and genders, but particularly among men. The share of white men who consumed five drinks a day at least once a week rose from 9 percent to 14 percent, and there was a similar increase among Hispanic men. Among women, whites are also more likely than other ethnic groups to binge drink.
Caetano said the trends toward riskier drinking behavior suggest more individuals are problem drinkers who may require treatment, and he noted that the patterns are likely made worse by recession and other factors.
The surveys and many other studies show that for people who aren't addicted to alcohol, drinking tends to decline with age.
Statistics on alcohol-related injuries and deaths from traffic accidents, crime and risky sexual activity all point to the dangers of immoderate behavior.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that two or three times more people die in alcohol-related traffic accidents around Christmas and New Year's Day than during other times of the year.
Another study points to another sort of threat from drinking holidays -- infant sleeping deaths.
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed more than 129,000 deaths attributed to sudden infant death syndrome between 1976 and 2006 and found that the deaths spike by 33 percent on New Year's Day.
The team, led by sociologist David Phillips, noted that the increase is well above an increase in SIDS deaths during the winter that has long been noted.
They also note that other research has found that the incidence of SIDS -- along with alcohol consumption -- rises on weekends and that babies of mothers who drink are more than twice as likely to die from SIDS as those whose mothers abstain.
Phillips said the large databases don't give enough detail about each death to determine just how alcohol use was related to the babies' deaths. "But we know that when people are under the influence of alcohol, their judgments are impaired and they are not as good at performing tasks, and this would include caretaking," Phillips said.
Medical examiners and infant death review boards around the country are increasingly finding that alcohol- or drug-impaired parents are more likely to place their babies in an unsafe sleep setting rather than putting them safely on their backs alone in a crib.
Investigators are finding that babies often die when parents or other family members roll over on them in their sleep in a bed, sofa or other setting, or become entrapped by heavy adult bedding. Infant death researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and elsewhere are working to better count those deaths and understand the circumstances that led to them.
(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL(at)shns.com.)