Most problem drinkers not alcoholics, CDC reports

At least 38 million U.S. adults drink too much, and most of them are not alcoholics, according to a new “Vital Signs” report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“For every one person who is alcoholic there are about six who are problem drinkers, drinking enough to adversely affect their lives, their health, their work situation or family situation,” CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said.

Three-quarters of Americans who drink too much are considered “binge drinkers.” This includes men who consume more than four alcoholic drinks in one setting and women who consume more than three.

But excessive drinking can also include “high average drinkers” (men who consume more than an average of two drinks per day or 14 per week and women who average more than one drink per day or seven per week). Any alcohol consumed by pregnant women, people under the age of 21 or people driving cars or operating heavy machinery is considered too much, Frieden said.

The CDC estimates that excess drinking causes 88,000 U.S. deaths each year and costs the economy more than $220 billion in addition to contributing to numerous social and chronic health problems.

But the CDC report also offers some hope. Researchers have found that brief screenings and interventions by health care professionals could go a long way in reducing the numbers of problem drinkers. These services can be as simple as a doctor, nurse or other caregiver spending five minutes with a patient to ask about the patient’s alcohol consumption, discuss what the patient wants to do in the future and recommend guidelines for the patient to follow.

“It should be a routine part of patient care,” Frieden said. “In the same way we screen patients for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, we should be screening for excess alcohol use and then responding appropriately.”