A new study released by the Center for Disease Control last week has politicians and commentators in a tizzy about the apparently high percentage of Americans who abuse alcohol. The study reports that 38 million Americans binge drink at least four times a month, a figure that works out to about one in six. It is easy to understand why statistics like these provoke shocked reactions from the general public, but it is another thing entirely when doctors and scientists who ought to know better start penning alarmist editorials calling for immediate action to solve this new “epidemic.”
For example, upon learning of this study, Fox’s Dr. Keith Ablow wasted no time in producing an irresponsible article entitled “America is Drunk,” in which he hypothesizes that the reason we drink so much is that we are desperately fleeing the painful reality of modern life by way of intoxication. As is usual with mental health professionals—especially those who are prominent in the media—the good doctor uses tired pseudo-psychology to reduce every issue to a symptom of some syndrome or another, rather than accept the perfectly obvious answer that Americans drink because drinking is fun.
But putting aside Dr. Ablow’s bloviating for a moment, the more important issue is the study itself. In the midst of a flurry of hyperbolic outrage and dismay, few in the media have actually bothered to examine the CDC’s methodology to determine whether such levels of concern are even warranted by the data.
To begin with, the information utilized was collected via a telephone survey. This means that respondents were asked to self-report on their drinking habits. Dishonesty, bravado or just plain forgetfulness can seriously impact the reliability of such surveys, but let’s assume for the time being that the people surveyed were relatively accurate with their reporting. It must still be acknowledged that telephone surveys rarely include cell-phones, and thus the respondents would be limited to only those Americans with landlines, an ever shrinking demographic. The implication is that people more likely to communicate by cell-phone—young people, the affluent and many business professionals—could conceivably be excluded from the survey, resulting in biased results.
Then there is the problem of the questions themselves. The CDC defines binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion for men, and four or more for women. The first question on the survey was worded as follows: “Considering all types of alcoholic beverages, how many times during the past 30 days did you have X [X = 5 for men; X = 4 for women] or more drinks on an occasion?”
This question is vague in the extreme. “Considering all types of alcoholic beverage” means that we have no idea whether the respondents were referring to beer, wine, mixed drinks or straight liquor. Suppose that the subject in question was referring to drinking a light beer; the alcohol content of most popular brands does not exceed 4.2%. So a man consuming five twelve-ounce cans would receive 2.52 ounces of alcohol over a total of sixty ounces of liquid. That’s the equivalent to just over three shots of an ordinary 40% ABV liquor, with the notable difference that the alcohol is diluted by the additional 57 ounces of what is essentially water. To classify this as dangerously excessive is puritanical to say the least.
Then there’s the nebulous phrase “on an occasion.” What amount of time classifies an occasion? The study doesn’t specify, leaving it up to respondents to speculate what is meant by the question. An occasion could be as little as an hour or as long as a day. Five beers over a long, lazy Saturday is hardly cause for alarm.
Of course it is possible that these methodological flaws could result in the underestimation of the problem, as the authors of the study suggest, but this is far from clear. In any case, the robustness of these findings is not remotely adequate to justify the paper’s policy recommendations, such as increasing excise taxes on alcohol and regulating alcohol outlet density. As things stand, this appears to be merely another misguided episode of government using fear-mongering to tighten its grip on the private lives of its citizens.