Using new data from its Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System from 166,753 people, the CDC estimated that 18.3 percent, or 38 million adults, were drinking too much. That was defined as binge drinking; downing five or more drinks in two to three hours for men or four or more drinks for women, averaging 15 or more drinks a week for men and eight or more drinks a week for women, or drinking any alcohol for pregnant women or those under age 21.
Excessive alcohol use accounts for an estimated 88,000 deaths a year, the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S., and costs the economy more than $220 billion a year, said CDC Director Tom Frieden.
However, for most problem drinkers, their drinking has not gone over into alcoholism where they cannot stop, he said.
“In fact, for every one person who is alcoholic there are about six who are problem drinkers – drinking enough to adversely affect their lives, their health, their work situation or family situation – but who are not alcoholic,” Frieden said.
Yet health care providers are not screening for alcohol use: 15.7 percent of people surveyed said they have had a conversation about alcohol with a health professional, and only 7.6 percent said it happened in the past year, according to the survey. That included only 17.3 percent of pregnant women, the survey found.
Doctors might be too busy to ask or fear they won’t have time to counsel if there is a problem, but even 15 minutes of conversation, talking about what a patient wants and what their goals should be, can make a difference, Frieden said.
“Drinking too much alcohol has a lot more risks than most people realize, and alcohol screening and counseling can help people set realistic goals for themselves and help them achieve those goals,” he said.
Brief intervention counseling resulted in a reduction in weekly alcohol consumption by 3.6 fewer drinks, 12 percent fewer participants binge drinking and helping 11 percent more people adhere to their limits, according to the study.
Because providers generally are not good at spotting who needs counseling, routine screening and offers of counseling should become part of standard care, Frieden said. That could be helped along by the Affordable Care Act which requires new insurance policies to cover this service, he said.
“We want all health professionals to screen their adult patients for alcohol use because this works,” Frieden said. “The bottom line here is drinking too much is a big problem among U.S. adults. It shouldn’t get a free pass when it comes to screenings by health professionals.”