America’s Drinking Problem Is Much Worse This Century

Americans are drinking more than they used to, a troubling trend with potentially dire implications for the country’s future health-care costs.

The number of adults who binge drink at least once a week could be as high as 30 million, greater than the population of every state save California, according to a study published on Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry. A similar number reported alcohol abuse or dependency.

Between the genders, women showed the larger increase in alcohol abuse, according to the report.

“This should be a big wake-up call,” said David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who wasn’t involved with the research. “Alcohol is our number one drug problem, and it’s not just a problem among kids.”

While underage drinking has declined in recent years, adult consumption increased across all demographics. The jump was also especially large for older Americans, minorities and people with lower levels of education and income.

The rise is “startling,” said Bridget Grant, a researcher at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and lead author of the paper. “We haven’t seen these increases for three or four decades.”

The share of adults who reported any alcohol use, high-risk drinking or alcohol dependence or abuse increased significantly between when surveys were conducted in 2001-02 and in follow-up surveys during 2012-2013. Researchers personally interviewed tens of thousands of people with similar questions, offering a robust, nationally representative look at how American drinking habits have evolved in the 21st century.

About 12.6 percent of adults reported risky drinking during the previous year in 2012-13, compared with 9.7 percent in 2001-02. Behavior was considered high-risk if people surpassed the government’s guidelines for excessive alcohol intake, set at four drinks in one day for women and five drinks for men, at least once a week.

That 3 percentage point increase may not seem like a huge jump, but given an adult U.S. population of about 250 million, it represents roughly 7 million more people binge drinking at least once a week.