The result is one of the heaviest drinking days of the year, comparable to other alcohol-laden holidays such as New Year's Eve and St. Patrick's Day. It also marks the beginning of one of the most perilous periods of the year for drunken-driving accidents.
Blackout Wednesday seems an appropriate time to take stock of binge drinking in the United States, which causes an estimated tens of thousands of deaths each year and accounts for billions of dollars in health care costs. The following charts illustrate some of what we know from the most recently published federal data on the nation's heaviest drinkers -- who they are, where they live, even how much money they make.
(Note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines binge drinking as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men on at least one occasion during the past 30 days).
1) Congrats, Wisconsin. Roughly a quarter of your adult population reported binge drinking, with an average of nearly five episodes per month. That far outpaces the national average of about 17 percent, or one in six adults. Other states (and, ahem, one federal capital) that eclipsed the 20 percent mark: Alaska, the District, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont. Among the states with the lowest rates of binge drinking: Arkansas, Utah and West Virginia.
2) Men consistently report binge drinking at rates far higher than women, as evidenced by nearly two decades of CDC findings in the chart below. But new evidence suggests that could be changing. An analysis published this week by scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, showed that differences in overall alcohol consumption between the sexes narrowed between 2002 and 2012. Higher percentages of women reported regular drinking, as well as more frequent drinking. When it came to binge drinking in particular, there was little change in 18- to 25-year-old college students. But for people the same age who were not in college, there was a noticeable increase in binge drinking among women, in contrast to a decrease among men. The reasons for the converging drinking patterns remain uncertain, researchers said.
3) Non-Hispanic white adults were the most likely to have had at least one heavy drinking day in the past year, followed by Hispanic and non-Hispanic black adults. For each group, those who reported binge drinking did so roughly four to five times per month.
4) For both men and women, the prevalence of binge drinking was highest among the 18- to 34-year-old adults. Interestingly, while the over-65 crowd had the lowest percentage of binge drinkers, seniors who binged did so more frequently than people of other ages -- 5.5 times a month on average. But 18- to 24-year-olds tended to drink most heavily in any one binge -- an average of more than 9 drinks per episode.
5) People who did not graduate from high school reported the lowest rates of binge drinking -- less than 14 percent -- but those who binge drank did so with more frequency and intensity that peers with higher education levels. College students overall have a longstanding reputation as heavy drinkers, but respondents with "some college" reported higher binge-drinking rates than college graduates.
6) Mo' money, mo' wine? CDC data consistently have shown that binge drinking is more common among those with household incomes of at least $75,000 than among people with less income. However, the highest frequency and intensity of binge drinking -- an average of five times a month, with 8.5 drinks per occasion -- was reported among people with household incomes of less than $25,000.
7) When Americans binge drink, where do they consume the most? It turns out that states with the highest "intensity" of adult binge drinking generally are in the Midwest and southern mountain states. Adult binge drinkers in Wisconsin reported having as many as nine drinks on any occasion over the course of a month, the highest rate in the country. West Virginia binge drinkers also averaged nearly nine drinks during a single episode, even though the state had one of the lowest rates of binge drinking overall.
Public health officials continue to warn about the personal and societal costs of binge drinking. CDC has estimated that collectively, binge drinking cost the nation $249 billion in 2010, or about $2.05 per drink. Those costs come in the form of losses in productivity and missed work, health-care expenses, alcohol-related crime and car crashes, as well as early mortality. For individuals, the agency says, binge drinking is associated with a harrowing range of problems, including unintentional injuries and death, sexual assault and domestic violence, alcohol poisoning, liver disease, sexual dysfunction and poor control of diabetes.
Food for thought on Blackout Wednesday.