CDC: If You Drink Enough to Enjoy It, You've Had Too Much


Back in 2003, responding to a CDC report on binge drinking, I noted that "one man's dinner party is another man's binge—especially if the other man has a degree in public health." Based on more recent survey data, the CDC now warns that "binge drinking* is a bigger problem than previously thought," involving 38 million American adults. That asterisk is well-earned, because the CDC continues to define "binge drinking" as "men drinking 5 or more alcoholic drinks within a short period of time or women drinking 4 or more drinks within a short period of time." If a "short period of time" meant 15 minutes, most Americans (except the ones who are currently binge drinking) probably would agree this pattern of consumption is excessive. But the questionnaire used to generate the CDC's data actually asks about drinks consumed "on an occasion," which could refer to an evening, a day, or a two-week cruise. Even if we pick the shortest of these periods, an after-work cocktail plus a few glasses of wine during dinner, followed by a digestif or nightcap, would be enough to qualify as a binge.

"To a person who drinks several glasses of wine while dining out or during a party with friends," concedes New York Times health writer Tara Parker-Pope, "the idea of consuming four or five drinks in an evening may not sound excessive for the circumstances." But did you know "this level of drinking would typically raise blood alcohol levels to 0.08 percent and make a person legally impaired to drive"? Not only that, but "a large body of evidence shows that drinking at that level is associated with a number of health hazards, including car accidents, injuries, violence and risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease." According to the CDC, this scientific evidence conclusively demonstrates that you should never consume more than three or four drinks (depending on your sex), even if you refrain from driving, stay away from chainsaws and forklifts, avoid bar fights, and carry a condom—or even if your entire "binge" occurs within the confines of your home.

Perhaps anticipating that many of her readers will disagree with the CDC, Parker-Pope claims binge drinkers consume "an average of eight alcoholic beverages within a few hours," which is pretty impressive but not actually true. First, as noted, the length of an "occasion" is left to the respondent's interpretation; it could be "a few hours," but it might be five or six, or an entire Saturday. Second, the number Parker-Pope cites is actually the average for "the largest number of drinks [respondents] had on any occasion in the preceding 30 days" (emphasis added). In other words, it is atypical, by definition, for any given individual. Furthermore, because it is an average across all respondents, including very heavy drinkers, it does not necessarily mean most of them consume that much even on one occasion per month.

In an Atlantic essay posted a few days ago, cocktail expert Derek Brown, co-owner of two highly regarded Washington, D.C., bars, describes his own recent binge:

It began at dinner with a group of friends in a popular restaurant. What followed was a series of wines paired to dishes, including some rather unusual wine selections by our very talented sommelier. I became a bit tipsy but, after nearly four hours, delightful conversation, and an amazing meal, what I felt most was satiated.

I consumed seven drinks in total, or about two per hour. I finished with a Scotch just to cap the night and then took a taxi home where I watched half of an episode of How I Met Your Mother before tip-toeing to bed….

During my binge drinking session I didn't start a fight. I didn't engage in unprotected sex or infect anyone with a sexually transmitted disease. I didn't worry about becoming dependent on alcohol, crashing my car, or suicide. I didn't engage in crime. I just had a great time and then went to sleep.