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Am I A Binge Drinker?

by Oliver Klimek on May 29, 2014

If your hobby (or profession for that matter) involves the consumption of hard liqour, it is advisable to take a step back from time to time and look at your alcohol intake as objectively as possible. How often do I drink? How much do I drink? Are there any drinking patterrns that might be worrisome?

Together with tobacoo, alcohol belongs to the group of socially accepted drugs. This does not make them any less dangerous, though. But while the dangers of tobacco consumption are mainly health-related, alcohol abuse can also have a negative impact on society at large because of the effects of intoxication: drunk driving, aggressiveness, physical and sexual violence, you name it. At its worst, alcohol can literally ruin your life, not only your health but also your livelihood.

There are two things that make alcohol a very tricky – some might say devious – substance. Consumed in small quantities it is fairly harmless or in some respects even mildly beneficial to your health, and the barrier to addiction is fairly high compared to tobacco. Addiction has to be separated from intoxication. They are not the same. You can become drunk without becoming addicited, and you can become addicted without drinking heavily. The line between “relaxing with a drink after work” and “needing a drink to relax after work” is a fine one, and people who have crossed it usually only notice it in hindsight.

In most if not all countries government authorities have issued guidelines that define a “low risk” amount of alcohol that is considered acceptable to drink on a daily basis. Some, like the UK and the US have defined standard units to make it more approachable to the public. The International Center for Alcohol Policies has compiled a table that compares the alcohol drinking guidelines for many countries. While Germany is very much at the bottom of of the list with 20 to 24 grams of alcohol per day for men and half of that for women, there are also some stunning entries like for the Spanish Basque Country where the guideline maximum is 70 grams per day for both men and women. In most countries the guideline daily amount for men roughly equals 500 ml or a pint of 5% ABV beer.

This is not very much at all, and anything above will put you in the “risky drinking” bracket. Needless to say my personal drinking pattern does that too. I drink alcohol on most days, with only an occasional day off. Usually it’s a few drams of whisky in the evening, sometimes preceded by a beer or a cocktail, occasionally I also have a beer or a glass of wine with my lunch.

Some countries also have defined limits for dangerous “binge drinking” and “heavy drinking”. The American CDC defines binge drinking as 70 grams (the Basque guideline daily amount) or more in a single session for men. “Heavy drinking” is defined by the intake of 210 grams of alcohol or more in a week for men which is just above 7 times the maximum daily guideline amount of 28 grams. According to US standards, I am a heavy drinker for sure.

In the UK the binge drinking limit is 48 to 64 grams for men and 32 to 48 grams for women. This is roughly equivalent to two and a half pints of strong lager for men and one and a half pint for women. Some sources limit binge drinking to the amount being drunk in a single session or a short peroid of time while others measure it per day. I don’t go above this limit every day but it is fair to say that according to the latter definition I have episodes of binge drinking on a more or less weekly basis.

Now proper binge drinking is a very real problem. When reading the term you immediately think of groups of heavily drunk men staggering along the streets, loudly “singing” football chants, molesting random females and picking fights with their male companions. Behaviour like this is detestable and everything possible should be done to prevent this.

But do numerical definitions like these actually help here? According to a recent study, more than 50% of UK drinkers could fall under the definition of binge drinking because people tend to underestimate their drinking behaviour. Does this mean the British are a people of notorious drunkards? It should be noted that the definition of binge drinking has been softened substantially over the years. What once used to be an episode of truly excessive alcohol abuse has now become “drinking until inebriated”.

Evidently the lower the standards, the more people are considered binge drinkers. This surely helps public awareness of the issue, and it also makes great headlines. But this way a large part of the population is indirectly accused of being rough anti-social arseholes as described above. Because this is what true binge drinking is.

The key error of the modern binge dringing definition is to break it down purely on alcohol intake. The psychological component is commonly ignored. Binge drinking in the traditional sense is drinking to become drunk, drinking not for enjoyment but for the sake of drinking itself. True binge drinkers drink in order to lose their inhibitions. They want to have what they consider “fun” which apparently can only be obtained by the excessive consumption of alcohol. All the negative consquences I described are much more likely to happen when people get purposefully drunk. If you drink alcohol for enjoyment, becoming too drunk is actually something undesirable because it prevents enjoyment. So even if you might already be over the “official” binge drinking limit you are much more likely to know when to stop than those who drink without the intention of stopping anytime soon.

In this respect I find it quite offensive to call anyone a binge drinker who has drunk more than two and a half pints of beer. Because actually most people do know when to stop. But if you are in the “drink to get drunk” mindset, guideline daily amounts are just a laugh for you. Better education about the effects of alcohol is needed, not arbitrary numerical limits.

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