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Prevalence of Alcohol

Written By
Sonia Tagliareni
This page features
12 Cited Research Articles

Alcohol consumption is on the rise in the United States. While alcohol in moderation does not harm the consumer, binge and heavy drinking have many consequences. Among those affected are teenagers, college students, and pregnant women. However, there are many ways to stay away from alcohol.

With alcohol so readily accessible, it is unsurprising that 87.6 percent of adults have consumed alcohol at least once in their lifetime, according to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

People drink for many reasons: at social gatherings, as a rite of passage, or as a means of relaxation. However, problem drinking is becoming more widespread, and the intensity of drinking is growing with it.

Alcohol Consumption Trends

Drinking alcohol is common in the United States. Seven out of 10 adults admitted to drinking in the past year, according to the NIAAA. These numbers show that alcohol is pervasive in the United States.

In 2014, 16.3 million adults had an alcohol use disorder, but only 1.5 million of those received treatment.

The NIAAA revealed that one in four adults engaged in binge drinking in the past month, while 6.7 percent of adults admitted to being heavy drinkers. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion at least once a month. Heavy drinking occurs when individuals consume five or more drinks on each of five or more days in a month.

Prevalence of Teenage Drinking

Teenage alcohol use is more widespread than the use of tobacco or other illicit drugs. Despite the decline in teenage drinking since the 1980s, it remains an important problem. Per the NIAAA, roughly 679,000 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 were diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder in 2014. Only 55,000 received treatment in a specialized facility.

Underage drinking is illegal, yet a 2014 survey by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 34.7 percent of 15-year-olds drank alcohol at least once in their lifetimes. Nearly nine million youngsters aged 12 to 20 admitted to past-month alcohol consumption.

Young Woman Drinking Beer

Although underage people do not drink as often as adults do, they tend to binge drink. In fact, 5.3 million youth aged 12 to 20 engaged in binge drinking, as reported by the 2014 NSDUH survey. Furthermore, 1.3 million youth in the same age bracket engaged in heavy drinking.

Trends Among College Students

For some students, drinking alcohol has become an integral part of the college experience.

Several factors influence college students’ drinking habits:

According to a national survey by the NSDUH, nearly 60 percent of full-time college students aged 18 through 22 were past-month consumers of alcohol. This is in contrast to the 51.5 percent of their peers in the same age bracket who do not attend college, which may mean that the college setting exacerbates drinking habits.

Binge drinking is responsible for many alcohol-related consequences in college. College students are inclined to consume a lot of alcohol due to perceived drinking norms. According to the NIAAA, 37.9 percent of college students aged 18 to 22 engaged in binge drinking in the past month, compared to 33.5 percent of their non-college counterparts in the same age group.

College student doing a Beer keg stand

The report also added that 12.2 percent of college students were past-month heavy drinkers compared to 9.5 percent of non-college-goers of the same age. Heavy drinking in college takes a toll on the student’s intellectual and social lives.

Alcohol Use During Pregnancy

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is frowned upon for good reason. The CDC stresses that no woman should drink alcohol while she is pregnant or trying to get pregnant. When a woman consumes alcohol, it flows through the umbilical cord to the baby, which can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).

Close Up Of Pregnant Woman Smoking And Drinking

According to a 2011-2013 CDC survey, one in 10 pregnant women said they consumed alcohol within the past month. Additionally, one in 33 pregnant women admitted to being past-month binge drinkers. Pregnant women tend to binge drink on more occasions than their non-pregnant counterparts do.

Alcohol use during pregnancy was the most prevalent among:

Alcohol – As Harmful as Other Drugs

There is a severe misconception that alcohol is safe because it is legal and available. A 2010 study published in The Lancet ranked alcohol as one of the most harmful substances to users and to others. The study, based on a sample in the United Kingdom, determined the harm caused by common drugs to users and others by evaluating the drugs against 16 criteria.

The NIAAA linked alcohol to 88,000 yearly deaths, with causes including car crashes, liver damage, and violence.

According to the research, alcohol was the most harmful drug to others by a wide margin. It also ranked as the fourth most harmful substance to the users, well ahead of marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines.

The NIAAA linked alcohol to 88,000 yearly deaths, with causes including car crashes, liver damage, and violence. In 2014, 31 percent of all driving fatalities — 9967 people —were the result of alcohol-impaired driving.

Consequences of the Prevalence of Alcohol

The widespread availability of alcohol leads to serious consequences. Three-quarters of the $249 billion spent on alcohol misuse in 2010 went toward binge drinking.

The cost covered:

Alcohol was responsible for nearly half of the 72,559 liver disease deaths in 2013, according to the NIAAA. Four years prior, one in three liver transplants was due to an alcohol-related liver disease. Alcohol was also linked to 48 percent of cirrhosis deaths in 2011. Of those, 72.7 percent happened in the 25 to 34 age group.

Gastroenterologist explaining liver problems

Some other negative health outcomes of alcohol include an increased risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, and breast.

Consequences of Underage Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol interferes with early brain development and puts the adolescent at risk of an impending alcohol use disorder. According to the CDC, teenagers who start drinking before they are 15 years old are six times more prone to developing an alcohol disorder than those who start drinking at legal age.

Teenager drinking beer

Underage drinking has multiple consequences that ripple into major problems in later life. Some of them include:

Consequences of Alcohol Consumption Among College Students

College drinking often includes underage students consuming copious amounts of alcohol. Every year, these unhealthy drinking practices prove to be harmful to the student and their peers. Nearly two thousand college students aged 18 to 24 die from alcohol-related injuries, including motor vehicle crashes, yearly.

Heavy alcohol consumption takes a toll on academic performance. One in four college students miss classes or perform poorly on exams due to drinking. The NIAAA reported that binge drinkers who consumed alcohol on at least three occasions a week were six times more likely to perform poorly and five times more likely to miss classes than non-binge drinkers.

Consequences of Alcohol Consumption During Pregnancy

When a pregnant mother consumes alcohol, she puts her child at risk of a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). This includes physical, intellectual, and behavioral disabilities. Other pregnancy problems associated with ongoing alcohol consumption are miscarriages and stillbirths.

Some of the characteristics of FASDs are:

There are no accurate estimates of fetal alcohol syndrome cases. According to a CDC study, 0.3 out of 1000 children aged 7 to 9 years suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. However, studies using in-person assessments reported 6 to 9 fetal alcohol syndrome cases out of 1000.

Unfortunately, the alcohol problem persists even after pregnancy. According to a 2012 study, more than 10 percent of children in the United States live with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder.

A Global Issue

The repercussions of alcohol abuse extend far beyond the United States. Alcohol is the fifth-leading risk factor for premature death and disability worldwide.

The NIAAA reported that in 2012, alcohol was responsible for 5.9 percent of global deaths and 5.1 percent of diseases and injuries. In fact, alcohol was associated with over 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions, including alcohol dependence, liver cirrhosis, cancers, and injuries.

Why Is Alcohol Popular?

Alcohol has been a pillar of the communal life for many years. Most people drink to relax or to socialize with their peers. To underage people, it is not only a rite of passage into adulthood but also a means to fit in.

Upon turning 21, some young adults engage in an event called “power hour,” where they attempt to consume 21 drinks in an hour. Despite the numerous media reports of newly legal adults dying from power hour, this excessive consumption of alcohol is a widely accepted norm.

A line of whiskey shots

In a 2005 New York Times article, Police Chief Christopher Magnus said, “There’s this attitude of inevitability about becoming totally intoxicated, and it’s hard to convince people why it’s wrong when that’s the social norm.” More than a decade later, the norms have not changed. More than five million youngsters between the ages of 12 and 20 engage in binge drinking.

Being away from their parental units, college freshmen look to their peers for guidance and support. The peers can act as influential models and encourage the new students to drink. The preconceived notion that alcohol is positive and acceptable contributes to the pressure. To a high school or college student, it is paramount to be accepted in the prominent groups.

There’s this attitude of inevitability about becoming totally intoxicated, and it’s hard to convince people why it’s wrong when that’s the social norm.

Police Chief Christopher Magnus

Carolyn Hsu, an associate professor of sociology at Colgate University noted that binge drinking was a symbol for high status in college. She added that low-status students were happier if they engaged in binge drinking. She said, “Students in all groups consistently liked college more when they participated in the campus’ binge drinking culture.”

How to Say No

Staying away from alcohol in a society where it is widely accepted may prove difficult. Internal and external triggers are the main reasons for an alcohol relapse. External triggers such as people or places that provide drinking opportunities are high-risk situations.

Internal triggers are more challenging because they happen on the inside. They may be in the form of a positive or negative emotion that sparks the urge to drink.

Several practices can limit internal and external triggers:

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