Americans, especially women and minorities, are drinking more alcohol amid a public health crisis that is being overshadowed by the opioid epidemic and the debate over legalizing marijuana, a new National Institutes of Health study says.
Over a 11-year period, researchers found increased alcohol use, abuse and disorders in all U.S. demographic groups, with higher instances among women, older adults, minorities and those with low levels of education and income.
The study was conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and was published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.
“The actual prevalence of both alcohol use, high-risk drinking and particularly alcohol use disorders is much larger than the magnitude of the problem for opioids or marijuana,” said Dr. Bridget Grant, the study’s lead author. “Even though all of those increases are very important — for alcohol and other substances — sometimes alcohol may get overshadowed, even though it is a more highly prevalent drug and is affecting 30 million people.”
Dr. Grant said the problem is likely much larger, as people tend to under-report their drinking habits in studies where they are responsible for self-reporting.
“A lot of people don’t like to talk about [drinking problems], and they just say they don’t have any problems or they don’t drink so much. But if these numbers are an underestimation, than they’re whomping,” she said. “The underestimation because of self report — if that is true — than these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Using a nationally representative sample, researchers surveyed about 40,000 people aged 18 and over in face-to-face interviews, making their findings applicable to the larger U.S. population.
The data, from 2001-2002 and 2012-2013, were used to evaluate participants’ levels of alcohol use, high-risk drinking and alcohol abuse.
High-risk drinking was defined as four or more drinks on any day for women, five or more drinks for men and how many times people exceeded those standards weekly in a year.
Alcohol use increased from 65.4 percent in 2001-2002 to 72.7 percent in 2012-2013, according to the study.
The researchers determined that 29.9 percent more Americans are engaging in high-risk drinking, from 20.2 million in 2001-2002 to 29.6 million in 2012-2013.
The study found that alcohol use disorder increased by 49.9 percent, from 17.9 million Americans meeting the psychological clinical criteria for the disease in 2001-2002 to 29.9 million Americans in 2012-2013.
Increases in alcohol abuse were greatest among women (83.7 percent), adults aged 45 to 64 years old (81.5 percent and 106.7 percent, respectively), African-Americans (92.8 percent) and people who make less than $20,000 a year (65.9 percent).
Dr. Grant explained that the 2008 recession is believed to be the greatest contributor to the increasing rates of alcohol abuse across most groups.
“I think the 2008 recession had a lot to do with creating a lot of stress and distress among people, economically, and that’s leading to using alcohol as a coping mechanism,” she said.
In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Marc Schuckit said that these increases constitute a number of problems for the American people, noting that alcohol-related maladies cost society about $250 million per year.
“My view is that if we ignore these problems, they will come back to us at much higher costs through emergency department visits, impaired children who are likely to need care for many years for preventable problems, and higher costs for jails and prisons that are the last resort for help for many,” Dr. Schuckit wrote.
Dr. Grant advocated for more education campaigns about treatment programs.
“People also need to be aware there is effective treatment, both behavioral, cognitive and pharmacological for alcohol problems and a lot of people don’t know that so we need a big education campaign,” she said.