Monday, December 14, 2009

How Common is Extreme Binge Drinking? Now We Know

We at 21 Debunked have repeatedly voiced disapproval at those who insist on calling 5 drinks a "binge," as well as noting the dearth of longitudinal data concerning the practice of imbibing 10 or more drinks in an evening, sometimes called "extreme" drinking or "extreme binge" drinking.  The Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of middle and high school students has not been gathering data on this truly dangerous activity, so we have been left in the dark about its true prevalence.  Until now. 

Lloyd Johnston, the overseer of the survey, has recently been asking high school seniors whether they have had 10+ drinks or more in at least one occasion in the past 2 weeks.  The most recent data say 11% have done so, and 6% have had 15+ drinks in a row.  While clearly a small minority, it is not a trivial fraction either, and is probably an underestimate.  And, most relevant to the drinking age debate, these numbers have not changed significantly since Johnston began following them, despite ever-intensifying enforcement.  So recent declines in prevalence of 5+ drinks in a row appear to be somewhat misleading, especially since underage drinkers tend to undercount their drinks.  Lying (or exaggerating or minimizing) is also fairly common in teen surveys.

For what it's worth, according to the same surveys 25% of seniors and 18% of sophomores admit to having had 5+ in a row in the past two weeks, and these numbers are leveling off after a decade-long decline.  It seems that fewer teens are drinking, but the more they do when they do.  That may explain why in emergency rooms in several cities across the country, admissions related to teen binge drinking increased in recent years in spite of surveys showing less drinking.

Tracking this dangerous behavior is long overdue.  We already know that among college freshmen, 20% of males and 8% of females have done extreme drinking (10+ males, 8+ females) in the past two weeks.  But that was a one-semester snapshot in the fall of 2003, with no other years for comparison.  The rate of "binge" drinking (using the 5/4 definition) in the past two weeks was 41% for males and 34% for females, which does jibe well with known statistics (roughly 40%) that use that definition.  But one must wonder if there is even any relationship at all between the rates of drinking, "binge" drinking, and "extreme" drinking.

Indeed, from 1993 to 2005, the percentage of college students who "binge" drank (5/4 definition) in the past two weeks has not changed a whole lot, but the percentage who do so three more times in the past two weeks ("frequent binging") has gone up significantly.  And since the aforementioned study found that extreme drinking was strongly correlated with frequent "binging," the former most likely rose as well.  Further evidence comes from another study that found that the number of alcohol poisoning deaths (a good indicator of truly dangerous drinking) among college students nearly tripled from 1998 to 2005. 

Bottom line:  when you criminalize normative drinking, you inevitably normalize truly dangerous drinking.  We saw the same thing during Prohibition.  And we all pay a heavy price for it.

Would you drive a car knowing its brakes would fail 11% of the time?  Didn't think so.

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