Contrary to popular opinion, only 10 percent of U.S. adults who drink too much are alcoholics, according to a federal study released on Thursday, a finding that could have implications for reducing consumption of beer, wine and liquor.
While many people think that most, if not all, heavy drinkers are alcoholics, medical specialists have long suspected that belief is incorrect, said Robert Brewer, an author of a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that analyzed self-reported data from 138,100 U.S. adults.
The study found that 90 percent of heavy drinkers fell short of the criteria for alcoholism. Women who have eight or more drinks per week and men who have 15 or more are considered heavy drinkers.
Signs of alcoholism include an inability to stop or reduce drinking, continuing to drink even after it causes problems with family or work, and excessive time spent drinking each day.
Only a third of those who admitted binge drinking 10 or more times in the previous month were alcoholics, the study found. The CDC defines binge drinking as consuming four drinks for women and five drinks for men in a single occasion.
Alcoholism was most common among those with annual family incomes of less than $25,000, according to the study.
Heavy drinkers should not cheer the new study's results, Brewer cautioned.
Drinking too much is unhealthy, killing 88,000 people annually regardless of whether the drinker is an alcoholic, the CDC said. Health effects include breast cancer, liver and heart disease and auto accidents.
“Anybody who takes from this paper that excessive drinking is not dangerous unless you are dependent is simply not getting the message, which is that drinking too much is bad, period,” Brewer said.
That said, it is important to quantify the percentage of alcoholics among heavy drinkers in order to develop effective strategies for reducing alcohol consumption, Brewer said.
For example, alcoholics may require treatment to stop drinking, while non-alcoholics might cut back if alcohol taxes were raised or the number of stores allowed to sell alcohol is reduced, Brewer said.
“The great preponderance of people who are drinking too much are not candidates for specialized treatment, but they can be helped in other ways,” said Brewer.