CDC: most excessive drinkers are not alcoholics

Although almost 1 in 3 adults in the US drink excessive amounts of alcohol, 90% of them are not alcohol dependent. This is according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

An individual pouring a glass of white wine

Only 10% of excessive drinkers in the US meet the criteria for alcohol dependence, according to the CDC.

The study - co-authored by Dr. Robert Brewer, leader of the Alcohol Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - is published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

The CDC define excessive drinking as heavy drinking (eight or more drinks a week for women and 15 or more drinks a week for men), binge drinking (four or more drinks in a single occasion for women and five or more drinks in a single occasion for men) or any alcohol consumption by a pregnant women or any person under the age of 21.

According to the research team, there is widespread assumption that the majority of excessive drinkers are alcohol dependent - primarily because many alcoholics have a history of excessive drinking. But they note that few studies have assessed rates of alcohol dependence among excessive drinkers.

"Access to such information is important to inform the prioritization of strategies to prevent excessive drinking and treat alcohol dependence," say the authors.

Findings suggest 'most excessive drinkers are unlikely to need addiction treatment'

To reach their findings, the team analyzed data from 138,100 adults aged 18 years and older who responded to the 2009, 2010 or 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Within this survey, participants were asked about their current drinking habits, average alcohol consumption and binge drinking. They were also asked about any symptoms of alcohol dependence - such as strong cravings for alcohol, ongoing alcohol use regardless of prior drinking problems and the inability to control alcohol consumption.

The analysis revealed that nearly 1 in 3 adults were excessive drinkers, with the majority engaging in binge drinking. But of these, only 10.2% were alcohol dependent - the equivalent to 1 in 10 excessive drinkers.

"This study shows that, contrary to popular opinion, most people who drink too much are not alcohol dependent or alcoholics," says Dr. Brewer.

The team notes that around 10% of binge drinkers are alcohol dependent, and that this rate increases with the frequency of binge drinking. "However, even among those who reported binge drinking 10 or more times in the past month, more than two thirds did not meet diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence, according to their responses to the survey," say the authors.

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