Alcohol abuse is often associated with Native Americans. But researchers have compiled data showing this stereotype doesn't stand up. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

That widely held assumption that Native Americans drink way more than other groups?

Not really accurate, according to a study published this week in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Researchers found that Native Americans are more likely than white counterparts to abstain from alcohol altogether, and the two groups had comparable rates of heavy and binge drinking.

Such findings “allow us to get rid of the stereotype of ‘the drunken Indian’ that has persisted for several decades in the media and in general public thought,” said co-author Teshia Solomon, director of the University of Arizona’s Native American Research and Training Center.

The stereotype that can affect everything from a Native American’s job prospects to the kind of diagnosis a doctor gives, said lead author Jim Cunningham, a social epidemiologist.

The University of Arizona researchers set out to investigate the disparities in alcohol-related health consequences among Native Americans, particularly reported cases of alcoholic liver disease, Cunningham said.

“There have been excellent studies at a small level” that painted a picture of drinking rates, he said, but “there hasn’t been an in-depth study on American Indians and alcohol use, as a total population.”

So they wanted to get a better sense of what’s behind these reported health disparities.

For this research, the team turned to two massive surveys. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, spanning 2009 to 2013, included data from more than 4,000 Native Americans and 170,000 whites. The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, conducted between 2011 and 2013, covered more than 21,000 Native Americans and 1 million whites.

Here’s what the researchers found, after adjusting for factors such as income and education levels: About 17 percent of whites and Native Americans were binge drinkers, meaning they consume more than four drinks on a given day. Rates of heavy drinking — sustained binge-drinking — were also comparable: About 8.3 percent of Native Americans and 7.5 percent of whites.

When it came to abstaining from alcohol, 60 percent of Native Americans didn’t have a drink during the previous month, compared to 43 percent of whites.

The data show “you have to take a more complex view if you’re looking at health disparities,” Cunningham said.

“People often assume consequences are the same as use, and they’re not,” Cunningham said.

Native Americans may be more vulnerable to the risks associated with drinking because of other issues, including a lack of access to health care, safe housing and clean water.

Given that the researchers didn’t find a major difference in drinking patterns, they want to dig deeper into liver disease rates among Native Americans.

“If you’re looking at one cause and it’s another cause, you’re missing the true issue,” Solomon said. “If it’s attributed to alcohol versus hepatitis C, or looking at diabetes or obesity or some other issue that may be causing it, you can’t intercept and do the right form of treatment.”

Regardless of a person’s identity, alcoholism is a serious problem that affects all populations, Solomon said, adding: “The treatment that’s offered should be effective for that population, and that individual. In regards to Native American populations, we think it’s important that culture be a key component of the healing for alcoholism and other diseases.”

Respondents in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health answered questions on a computer while the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey was conducted by telephone.

 

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