by Jacob Sullum
Based on data from the federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, researchers at Duke University report that one-fifth of men and one-tenth of women between the ages of 50 and 64 have gone on a drinking binge in the last month. That sounds fairly alarming until you realize that our government defines "binge drinking" as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion. Yesterday, for example, I had a mint julep in the early evening, a glass of wine during dinner, and a Tom Collins afterward. Because those two cocktails each contained a couple of shots, this series of beverages qualified as one standard U.S. binge, even though I did not go on a violent rampage, drive my car into a hydrant or a pedestrian, or neglect professional or family responsibilities because of my preoccupation with drinking. As I noted several years ago:
This counterintuitive definition of [binge drinking], often used by alcohol researchers in the United States, causes confusion, and not just among laymen. It is quite different, first of all, from the traditional definition of an alcoholic binge, which involves devoting days or weeks to drunkenness.
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As State University of New York sociologist David J. Hanson puts it, binge "describes an extended period of time (typically at least two days) during which time a person repeatedly becomes intoxicated and gives up his or her usual activities and obligations in order to become intoxicated. It is the combination of prolonged use and the giving up of usual activities that forms the core of the clinical definition of [a] binge."
Then, too, the CDC's notion of a binge is different from that of alcohol researchers in other countries. Hanson notes that "a recent Swedish study...defines a binge as the consumption of half a bottle of spirits or two bottles of wine on the same occasion." An Italian study viewed eight drinks a day as normal, while "in the United Kingdom, bingeing is commonly defined as consuming 11 or more drinks on an occasion."
The authors of the new study, which was published by The American Journal of Psychiatry, are also worried about "at-risk" drinking, defined as two or more drinks a day, a level of consumption reported by 19 percent of men and 13 percent of women in the 55-to-64 age group. (Those Americans needn't cut down on their drinking to avoid the "at-risk" designation; they also could move to the U.K., where two drinks a day are considered perfectly acceptable.) "At-risk and binge drinking are frequently reported by middle-aged and elderly adults nationwide and are therefore of public health concern," the researchers conclude. "Clinicians working with middle-aged and older adults should screen for binge drinking and coexisting use of other substances." I doubt that such nagging will reduce alcohol consumption, but it may drive down the numbers that alarm these researchers by encouraging people to be less candid about their drinking habits.