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Alcoholics aren't the only problem drinkers; so are people whose social imbibing gets out of hand.
And a study released today indicates that binge drinking is most prevalent in the upper Midwest. Defined as drinking five or more alcoholic beverages within a few hours, binge drinking also is prevalent in Texas and Nevada but is lowest in the South, the research shows. It's also more common among men and people age 34 and younger.
Among the 120 largest metropolitan areas, San Antonio had the highest prevalence of binge drinking; Chattanooga, Tenn., had the lowest, according to the study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Findings are published in the American Journal of Public Health.
''If (I were) the mayor or somebody who is living or working in one of the cities with high binge-drinking rates, I would be quite alarmed,'' says study co-author Tim Naimi, a public health physician with the CDC.
''But I think it's important to recognize that binge drinking is pretty common across the U.S. Acute intoxication from alcohol is a leading cause of death in the U.S. It's extremely common. It's extremely dangerous -- dangerous not only for the drinker but society as a whole.
''But binge drinking is still quite socially acceptable, and it's really not been widely addressed as a health and safety issue.''
The study, based on data from 1997 and 1999 that was collected by the CDC and state health departments, did not look specifically into causes, and there is no simple explanation for the regional differences, Naimi says.
''I think the best one can say is that a combination of factors'' influences the rates, he says.
Those include the age of people (younger people tend to binge-drink more often than older); their gender (men binge-drink more often than women); their religious affiliation (some religious denominations frown upon alcohol consumption); local laws and policies that would regulate the availability of alcohol; local customs and culture; and the presence or absence of universities.
Though binge drinking is a major problem on college campuses, contrary to popular belief, college students are not the only offenders, Naimi says.
In fact, more than 70% of all binge drinking occurs among people over 25, he says. College students just tend to attract more attention because they drink in the same place at the same time.
And binge drinkers are as big a threat to society as alcoholics, experts say.
''At least half of the harm associated with alcohol consumption in this country is not related to people who are alcoholics,'' says John Higgens-Biddle, an alcohol researcher retired from the University of Connecticut Health Center. ''It's related to people who simply drink too much.''
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