Moderate Drinker Or Alcoholic? Many Americans Fall In Between

November 20, 2014 6:23 PM ET
Allison Aubrey

Source: NPR

Women who consume eight or more drinks per week are considered excessive drinkers, according to the CDC. Breast cancer, liver disease and heart disease have all been linked to excessive drinking over time. Ann Boyajian/Illustration Works/Corbis

Women who consume eight or more drinks per week are considered excessive drinkers, according to the CDC. Breast cancer, liver disease and heart disease have all been linked to excessive drinking over time.
Ann Boyajian/Illustration Works/Corbis

A lot of us make the assumption that there are two kinds of drinkers: moderate drinkers who have a glass of wine with dinner, and on the other end of the spectrum, alcoholics.

But this is not an accurate picture, according to researchers.

“The reality of the situation is that most adults who drink, they’re drinking maybe a couple drinks during week and then typically drinking [larger] amounts on weekends,” says Robert Brewer, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and co-author of a new study published in Preventing Chronic Disease.

And what that means is that 1 in 3 adults drinks excessively.

What counts as excessive? Less than you might think.

Women who consume eight or more drinks per week are considered excessive drinkers. And for men, excess is defined as 15 or more drinks a week. (The researchers defined a drink as just 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of spirits.)

So, say I have a smallish glass of wine with dinner most nights of the week. Then I go out on Saturday night and have a cocktail and a beer, or maybe more wine. Does this means I am drinking excessively?

“That’s correct, as a woman, if you were to drink eight or more [drinks] per week, that is considered in the category of excessive drinking,” Brewer says.

Turns out, a lot of us are not the moderate drinkers we thought we were.

Now, Brewer points out that most excessive drinkers follow much more of a binge-like pattern, where they’re drinking four or more drinks per occasion.

And, from a health perspective, the more people drink to excess, the higher their risks. Brewer points to a host of diseases that are linked to excessive alcohol use over time. “This could include breast cancer, for example, liver disease, liver cancer, heart disease,” to name a few.

Excessive alcohol consumption, according to the CDC, is responsible for 88,000 deaths per year and costs the U.S. more than $200 billion.

Now, there’s also a surprising finding to the new study: 90 percent of excessive drinkers are not alcohol dependent, i.e., alcoholics.

“This study shows that, contrary to popular opinion, most people who drink too much are not alcohol dependent,” says Brewer.

This means that despite drinking a lot of alcohol, they don’t experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking, nor do they report an increased tolerance for alcohol. There are several other criteria for alcohol dependence as well.

The findings are based on survey data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. About 138,000 participants were asked a series of questions about their drinking patterns and alcohol dependence. Researchers acknowledge that some participants could have underestimated their consumption or dependency.

But Brewer says it’s important to understand that the excessive drinkers who are not alcohol dependent are unlikely to need addiction treatment. They may also respond to interventions such as increased alcohol taxes to drink less.


To understand the problem better you need to think about it in terms of diet. We Americans are dealing with diets which routinely contain more salt and sugar than is healthy for us. So much so that we are poor judges of whether things are too salty or too sweet. Because of our eating habits we are as a nation fatter than most European countries. We tend because of our almost uniform obesity to want to engage in less exercise. And of course any attempts to get us to engage in healthy eating habits is considered invasive and unwarranted. Sound familiar?

While we can rationalize our adult obesity we cannot ignore the rapidly rising instances of Type 2 Diabetes in middle-aged adults. And if that was not enough we have allowed our children to become so addicted to sugar that even they are overweight. We know this to be true and yet we either cannot or do not wish to turn things around.

Our consumption of alcohol is rising rapidly as a result of the resurgence of craft brewing. But along with the alcohol consumption comes its side effects:

  • Increased DUI accidents on roadways for both automobiles and bicycles.
  • In colleges and the military this translates into such high incidences of date rape that the military had to rethink its alcohol policies. And most colleges are struggling with both reforming alcohol policies and writing manuals that spell out in detail what constitutes ‘rape‘ in the first place.
  • Spousal abuse is another sign that we have allowed our consumption of alcohol to get out of control.
  • Even the POTUS has had to face the fact that the folks who guard his life do not know how to refrain from using liquor to the point that their performance is impaired.

But the single most disappointing thing is that the Cycling Movement and its Advocacy Groups are both unwilling and no doubt unable to refrain from falling into the habit of trying to use alcohol-themed fundraisers as a way of staying in touch with their benefactors.

It sends absolutely the wrong message about our commitment to ‘safety‘. Rather than acknowledging the problems we face with alcohol use by bicyclists (BUI) we actually turned on the Governors Highway Safety Report by denouncing its reporting of fact. This is really unforgivable considering the purported reasons for the ‘protected bike lane‘ movement in the first place.

It would be far better for us to face up to these problems now than have to deal with the aftermath of cyclists who ‘run down pedestrians‘ in crosswalks and on trails in places like Central Park. This is a problem that will only get worse before it ever gets better. The Cycling Community needs to acknowledge its complicity in maintaining the wrong stance on the use of alcohol.

In essence we cyclists have become co-dependents with a society in which more people on the road at any given time as approaching DUI than ever before.