Binge Drinking Prevalent, Yet Underestimated in Females

Pam Harrison

January 08, 2013

Binge drinking is a prevalent and often underestimated problem among US women and female adolescents that frequently starts in high school, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows.

The report found that nearly 14 million women in the United States binge drink about 3 times a month, consuming on average 6 drinks per binge.

CDC defined binge drinking as drinking 4 or more drinks per occasion.

The highest frequency and intensity of binge drinking — 3.6 episodes per month and 6.4 drinks per occasion — was reported by women between 18 and 24 years of age.

However, the prevalence of binge drinking among women and high school girls did not vary dramatically with age — approximately 20% of high school girls, 24% of women aged 18 to 24 years, and 20% of those aged 25 to 34 years all reported binge drinking.

"Binge drinking is a serious and unrecognized problem among women and girls, and it is associated with a wide range of health issues, including violence, injury, sexually transmitted disease, and unwanted pregnancy," Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, director, CDC, Atlanta, Georgia, said during a press conference.

"Fortunately, there are effective things that all of us can do to prevent it: Parents can prevent youth from beginning and continuing to drink in a harmful pattern; states and communities have guidelines that are effective at reducing binge drinking; and doctors and other healthcare professionals can ask patients about their drinking, because even a brief counseling session can make a big difference in helping prevent progression to binge drinking."

The study is published in the January 8 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Prevalence Higher in Whites

The CDC analyzed data from the 2011 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

They also analyzed data from the 2011 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey to assess alcohol use and binge drinking among US high school girls in grades 9 to 12.

The definition of binge drinking used in the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey was 5 drinks or more on occasion, not 4 drinks or more, as was used to assess prevalence rates in the current report.

Thus, if anything, the prevalence of binge drinking detailed in the current report is an underestimation of the real rates of binge drinking among women and girls, Dr. Frieden indicated.

In 2011, the overall prevalence of binge drinking among women aged 18 years or older in the United States was 12.5%.

The prevalence of binge drinking was highest among non-Hispanic white women, but the frequency and intensity of binge drinking was similar across racial and ethnic groups.

Binge drinking also increased with household income and was highest among women whose annual household income reached $75,000 a year or more.

Among high school girls, Hispanic and non-Hispanic white high school girls were most likely to report binge drinking — the rate was approximately 22% for each group.

Current alcohol use also increased with increasing grade, with approximately 45% of girls in grade 9 and more than 61% of girls in grade 12 reporting current alcohol use.

Higher Blood Alcohol

Similarly, binge drinking increased with grade, with twice as many girls in grade 12 reporting binge drinking as girls in grade 9.

More than one half of high school girls who reported current alcohol use also reported binge drinking.

Again, the higher the grade, the more likely girls who reported current alcohol use were to binge drink, at 45% in grade 9 to almost 62% in grade 12.

"Binge drinking is not a new problem among women and girls, but there are special concerns about binge drinking among them," Robert Brewer, MD, MPH, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Atlanta, Georgia, said during the same telebriefing.

Women and girls, for example, metabolize alcohol differently than males and reach higher blood alcohol levels for the same amount of alcohol consumed.

They are also at risk for not just short-term harmful effects from binge drinking but also long-term risks, including breast cancer.

Women with unintended pregnancies as a result of binge drinking tend not to recognize that they are pregnant, CDC authors observe.

Binge drinking during pregnancy is therefore potentially associated with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which clearly has long-term consequences for the infant as well.

For more information about binge drinking, visit the CDC's Alcohol and Public Health Web site.

MMWR. January 8, 2013.