A local station in Boston recently posted a slide show based on The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2014 report of County Health Rankings and compiled a list of Massachusetts counties and their respective percentages of adults who drink excessively. This immediately sparked my interest, if for nothing else than to see what government’s idea of “excess.” Growing up in Massachusetts—a state rich with history and alcoholism—I was always taught that excess is in the eye of the beholder.
Depends on Who You Ask
But according to WCVB, excessive drinking is defined as binge drinking (for women, consuming more than four drinks in a two-hour period and for men, having more than five in the past 30 days) and heavy drinking (consuming more than one for women or two for men drinks per day on average). I don’t know about you but that really don’t sound like a lot to me. Although it probably wouldn’t, seeing as I have never known anything but drinking excessively. Did I mention I grew up in Massachusetts?
What strikes me the most about this survey is how it validates my suspicions about the lack of accuracy of surveys—at least ones where people have virtually no reason to be honest. Substance abusers are liars—maybe not about everything but certainly about their using. Because if you are 35 years old and still bragging about how freakin’ wasted you got last night, excessive drinking is the least of your problems. Somewhere between the ages of 24 and 34, it’s silently expected that you have become too busy with real life responsibilities to get high school drunk every weekend, let alone every night.
So as the happy-hour-turned-all-nighters of the 20’s get less and less, the real alcoholics continue the party solo style, drawing their curtains and polishing off three bottles of wine with their Mac & Cheese Lean Cuisine. These are not the kind of people who are going to be jazzed to check off “Single, 25k year, 10-12 drinks in one sitting.” The only people who accurately report their drinking habits are the ones who aren’t ashamed of their drinking habits, which is to say the ones who don’t have a problem with habitual excess drinking.
The County Breakdown
If my theory holds water (or beer, as it were), it would certainly explain some of the results of this survey. The #1 and #2 slots for heaviest drinking counties in Massachusetts are no-brainers: Dukes County (Martha Vineyard) and Nantucket County. Not only are these tiny islands where there is little to do but drink but they are also vacation spots so their residential population is very small. Even then, both counties only reported that 26% of adults there drank excessively. The only way this makes sense is if the other 74% of adults are Labrador retrievers.
The county claiming the least percentage of excessive drinkers is Barnstable at 18%. For those of you not in the know, that is Cape Cod, where the Boston accent is as thick as the hair gel. Full-time residents of the Cape could probably write a bestseller on how to piss your pants and still keep your bar tab open. These people are professional drinkers. Though perhaps their drinking load has been lightened as they deal with their rampant opiate problem?
Downtown Boston’s Suffolk County came in third-to-last at 19%, a number that seems suspiciously low considering it houses approximately 50 college and university campuses and nearly 20 times that in bars. But it claims to have beat out my alma mater of Middlesex County, which is larger than any of the counties I’ve mentioned—and where I learned to drink—yet still only tied with Barnstable at just 18%. This is a pill I find 82% hard to swallow.
These surveys nevertheless provide an interesting gauge of what the drinking trends are in Massachusetts, a useful tool for estimating where further treatment resources and alcohol awareness might be needed, even if the actual numbers are much greater then what we see. And if nothing else, they give us a deeper understanding of how the traditional folk of New England think their drinking is none of your Goddamned business.