Report: "Heavy Drinking Days" on the Rise, Says NIAAA

With all the attention and media coverage on the opioid epidemic these days, we can sometimes forget that the biggest substance use disorder is still very much with us. That's right - it's alcohol. In sheer numbers, alcohol-related "harms" far exceed heroin, crack and all the other drugs, according to exhaustive scientific studies of the effects of substance use disorders. In fact, alcohol abuse makes many other drug problems seem tame by comparison. For these reasons, a recent national survey by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an agency of the National Institutes of Health, is drawing some concern. "Heavy drinking days," the NIAAA report says, crept slightly higher for both sexes in 2016 compared to the year before. For men, a "heavy drinking day" is defined as five or more drinks in a single day. For women it's four drinks in a day. Four or five drinks may not sound like much to drink over the course of an entire day. Statistically, however, that seemingly innocent volume of alcohol is related to a greater incidence of addiction, and a short but nasty list of physical illnesses.

Not binge drinking, but...

Don't confuse a "heavy drinking day" with the widely publicized "binge drinking" we read so much about, especially among college students and young adults. The NIAAA says binge drinking means at least five or more drinks for men, and four or more drinks for women, in a much shorter period - only 2 hours or so. It almost always happens in groups, at a party or sitting in a bar, and it almost always leads to inebriation, frequently to unconsciousness, and sometimes to death. Heavy drinking days, however, can often occur alone, or perhaps with one other person present throughout the day and evening. And it's very, very common. The NIAAA survey found that over 30 percent of men and nearly 20 percent of women reported at least one heavy drinking day last year - both showing an increase from 2015. And there were many more than once a year. The heaviest drinkers ranged from young adults - legal drinkers of 18 or 21 - up to men and women in their mid-40s. Statistically, heavy consumption tapers off after the age of 45.

Low-risk drinking gets low marks

The NIAAA has defined what it calls "low-risk drinking" as single-day and weekly limits for men and women, based on statistical averages of alcohol-related problems. These "low-risk" limits are no more than four drinks on any single day, and 14 drinks per week, for men; and for women, no more than three drinks on any day and seven per week. Among people who exceed these limits, says the NIAAA, about 1 in 4 already suffers from alcoholism or alcohol abuse, and the rest are at increased risk for these and other problems. "People can still have trouble drinking within these limits, especially if they drink too quickly, have certain medical conditions, or are older," said Kenneth Warren, Ph.D. , former NIAAA Acting Director. And as we all know, there are plenty of seniors belting down 5 or more drinks a day as a regular way of life. Even more disturbing, NIAAA research suggests that only about two in 100 alcohol consumers drink within these "low-risk" limits. That's 2 percent, and it's a frightening statistic when you factor in all the misery associated with alcohol in this country and around the world.

A quick comparison

Here's a quick comparison of substance-abuse related deaths in America for 2014:

  • Alcohol-Induced Deaths 30,722
  • Pharmaceutical Opioid Analgesics 18,893
  • Heroin Overdose 10,574
The numbers tell the tale. So when that NIAAA survey shows risky drinking on the rise across the country, it's time for us all to put our best efforts forward to try to reverse that trend, however we can. Here at Novus, we're on the front lines helping people put their alcohol dependence behind them for good. And each time a patient completes their alcohol detox, we raise our glasses - of fruit juice - in a toast of congratulations for another job well done.

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