The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released some news about one of America’s biggest drug problems, binge drinking. It seems that alcohol can kill you if you drink too much, an overdose by any name. About 2,200 people in America die from alcohol overdoses every year — about six a day. Dumb college kids, I hear some of you say. Well, actually, 75 percent of those deaths fell in the 35-64 years of age category. The parent of a frat boy is more likely to OD on ethanol than junior is.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism “defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men — in about 2 hours. … The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which conducts the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), defines binge drinking as drinking 5 or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion on at least 1 day in the past 30 days.”
And it is that kind of boozing that can kill because the body doesn’t have the time to metabolize the alcohol. Kick the BAC up past 0.10, and the brain’s ability to control involuntary body functions like heart rate, breathing and so on is degraded quite badly. One drink an hour for 16 hours probably isn’t good for you, but you aren’t compromising the brain’s function as much as if you have four drinks in one hour. This is in addition to the long-term damage that alcohol can do to your liver and other rather important body parts.
The CDC says that 38 million people reported having eight drinks in one episode at least once a week. That’s about 13 percent of the entire U.S. population. Americans 26 and older engage in 1.5 billion episodes of binge drinking annually. The study found that the 45-54 age bracket is the most vulnerable to alcoholic OD, that 76 percent of the deaths occurred among men, and almost 70 percent were non-Hispanic whites (although on a per-capita basis, Native Americans are seven times more likely to OD than whites). Ironically, it’s the youngsters who engage in the most binge drinking while accounting for just 5 percent of the OD deaths. The reason is simple enough: Older bodies usually don’t work as well as younger ones. Trust me on this. I quit drinking because the hangovers got to be so bad after several years of waking up just fine. (Truth is, I’ve probably spilled more than most of you have swallowed).
The CDC also notes that binge drinkers are normally not candidates for AlAnon. About nine out of 10 binge drinkers are not alcohol dependent, that is, not medically defined as alcoholics. This includes about two-thirds of the people who binge drink 10 times or more a month.
So what do we do about it? The CDC says, “States and communities can take steps to reduce alcohol poisoning deaths by preventing binge drinking, including:
• Supporting proven programs and policies to decrease binge drinking. States with stronger alcohol policies have less binge drinking.
• Partnering with police, community groups, health departments, and doctors, nurses and other health care providers to reduce binge drinking and related harms.
• Monitoring the role of alcohol in injuries and deaths.
There’s one other thing, though, and it is down to the drinker. Alcohol is a drug, and for any drug, there is a right dose, one that is safe and even beneficial. The CDC says one drink a day for a woman, two for a man is it. And no, you don’t get to fill your 10-gallon fish tank with sangria and pretend that counts as one.
Here’s the ugly truth: 12 ounces of beer (that’s one standard can or bottle) is a drink. Wine is stronger, so 5 ounces is a drink. For spirits (that’s vodka, rum, tequila, brandy, Scotch and lesser whiskies, etc.) it’s 1.5 ounces, a jegro. I refuse to use the “J-word.”
Try this thought experiment. If I told you that four units of heroin might kill you, would you take five? Replace heroin with “alcohol.” Yes, alcohol is legal, and yes, it is a big part of our culture. But it is as much as drug as heroin. Treat it with the respect, and fear, it deserves.