The Differences Between Heavy Drinkers and Alcoholics

The Differences Between Heavy Drinkers and Alcoholics

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This post was originally published on October 28, 2015.

What’s the difference between someone who downs a pitcher of lager in an hour at the local sports bar and someone who drinks four 40 ounce bottles of Miller High Life alone on the floor of their bathroom at 2 pm on Wednesday? Is one a hard drinker and the other an alcoholic? Can someone who drinks up to 10 drinks a day, but is never wasted, be an alcoholic? What about the person who downs 10 drinks in an hour?

As we’ve discussed before, the difference between hard drinking and what laypeople and the media call alcoholism has always been a blurry line. A new study put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that more often than not, heavy drinkers aren’t alcoholics.

A Few Words…

Before going further, it’s important to note that the actual study does not use the word alcoholic as it’s no longer in formal use by the medical community. Instead, they use the term “alcohol dependent” meaning physically addicted to alcohol to the point where going without the drug would lead to withdrawals. This is not the same as risky binge drinking. Risky binge drinkers may or may not be physically dependent on booze, and the study’s authors defined binge drinking as consuming four or more alcoholic drinks in a  “short period of time” for women and five or more for men. God only knows if that means twenty minutes or two hours. They certainly could have been a bit more specific.

Experts wanted to get some numbers to see how many reckless drinkers were actually dependent on alcohol. To get the numbers, the research team collected self-reported data on the drinking habits of 138,100 people between 2011 and 2014. According to the CDC’s research, just one in nine excessive drinkers are actually dependent on booze.

Great News?

This may sound like wonderful news for those who know nothing about substance abuse. Unfortunately, binge drinking is itself not the safest practice. It can lead to all sorts of mishaps like wrapping your car around a telephone pole in a blackout, beating someone to a pulp in a blackout or even attempting suicide while in a drunken fog (been there, done that).

Turns out Dr. Bob Brewer, the author of the study and Director of the CDC’s Alcohol Program in the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion agrees, albeit with some confusing language.

“Knowing that nine out of 10 people who drink too much are not alcohol dependent in no way diminishes the impact of alcohol dependence as a problem,” Brewer told the The Washington Post. “It just says the problem we’re dealing with is bigger than that. We need to look at this problem with a wider-angle lens and consider not just treatment for those who need it.”

The study’s conclusion states: “A comprehensive approach to reducing excessive drinking that emphasizes evidence-based policy strategies and clinical preventive services could have an impact on reducing excessive drinking in addition to focusing on the implementation of addiction treatment services.”

Ultimately, Brewer acknowledges that excessive drinking is a problem on its own, even without physical dependence on alcohol.

Is This Even News?

Anyone familiar with alcohol abuse—and certainly anyone who’s attended an AA meeting—knows that you don’t have to be physically dependent on alcohol to have a problem. Heck, some people who are physically dependent don’t have a problem staying off the sauce once they detox.

Every drinker is different.

Whether news that just one in nine binge drinkers are dependent on alcohol matters at the end of the day is a question. As someone who destroyed her life many times due to crazy drinking but never had the jitters, DTs, or the need to chug booze first thing in the morning, I personally think that money could have been better spent elsewhere.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.