Binge drinking (alcohol intoxication disorder)
- Introduction to binge drinking
- What is binge drinking?
- What do Australians drink?
- Rates of binge drinking
- Why do people binge drink?
- Short term consequences of binge drinking
- Long term consequences of binge drinking
- How to avoid binge drinking
Introduction to binge drinking
Alcohol consumption is embedded in our culture. Over 62% of Australians drink at least once a week. There is, however, a big difference between having a beer or glass of wine, and binge drinking. While the responsible consumption of alcohol may be beneficial, binge drinking is a very serious matter that has important health, personal and community consequences.
What is binge drinking?
Alcohol intoxication disorder, more commonly known as binge drinking, has several different definitions, and the definition keeps changing. The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines binge drinking as more than 7 drinks a night for men, and more than 5 for women. A newer definition of binge drinking, supported by the NHMRC Australian Alcohol Guidelines, is more than 4 standard drinks per night.
It is important to realise that all of these numbers are standard drinks and not ‘drinks’. A single can of full strength beer is actually 1.5 standard drinks, while an average restaurant serve of wine is up to 1.8 standard drinks. This means that it is very easy to underestimate how much we are actually drinking.
What do Australians drink?
In middle aged and older people, beer accounts for 46% of total alcohol consumed, wine for 31% and spirits for 20%.
Young Australians have very different preferences. Of youths who drink only a small amount of alcohol, 58% had beer, 26% pre-mixed drinks, 16% spirits and 8% wine. However, of young binge drinkers, 59% drank beer, 51% drank pre-mixed drinks, 46% had spirits, and only 2% consumed wine.
There has been a steady change in alcohol preferences among binge drinkers over the last decade. Beer and wine drinking has decreased, while the percentage of binge drinkers who consume pre-mixed drinks has soared from 18% to over 50%.
Rates of binge drinking
In 2004 in Australia, about 48% of adult males and 32% of adult females participated in binge drinking at least once a year. About 12% of males and 4% of females were binge drinking at least once a week.
The rates of binge drinking have increased significantly since that time. It now seems that about 18% of Australians aged 20-29 are binge drinking at least once a week. Females under 19 have overtaken males under 19 in binge drinking. 28.3% of females aged under 19 binge drink, while only 24% of under 19 males binge drink.
Binge drinking was once considered to be predominantly youthful behaviour. It is now becoming more and more clear that not only young people are binge drinking. In fact, the rates of binge drinking are similar in all age groups up to 55 years old.
In the US, around 24% of adults binge drink. More young people under the age of 29 drink in the US compared to other age groups.
In Europe, the rates of binge drinking vary considerably, with up to 40% of people in Poland binge drinking at least monthly. However, these people drink around 8 standard drinks during a binge. This is in contrast to the UK and Ireland, where only 35% of people binge drink on a monthly basis, but the average consumption is 14-16 standard drinks. The lowest rates of binge drinking are in Romania (8% of the population), Portugal (9%) and Greece (10%). In the rest of Europe, the rates of people binge drinking on a monthly basis are 10-20%, with varying amounts of alcohol consumed.
Why do people binge drink?
The reasons why people binge drink are complex. There have been many explanations of binge drinking as a way of escaping problems or forgetting crumbling relationships. When asked, people say that they binge drink for fun, to loosen inhibitions and do silly things, because their friends are also drinking, to relax or relieve stress, to enhance confidence, to celebrate and, most significantly, to socialise.
Certainly a lot of these reasons will be true for some people who binge drink. However, there is one very important and quite simple explanation why the rates of binge drinking are so high. That explanation is society’s culture of alcohol.
Research is now showing that how a community views alcohol determines how much people drink in that community. Communities that have a culture of drinking have much higher rates of binge drinking, while communities where drinking is frowned upon have much lower rates of binge drinking. It is now thought that a community’s views on alcohol are more important than individual or family views on alcohol. The reason for binge drinking is much more complicated than one single factor, but it is important to realise that how a community perceives alcohol does influence binge drinking rates.
Short term consequences of binge drinking
Most people know the short term effects of excessive alcohol, such as:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unsteadiness on your feet
- Forgetting what happened
However, these are just the tip of the iceberg. There are other, much more serious, complications of binge drinking. These include:
- Falling over
- Sexual disinhibition (resulting in an unplanned pregnancy or STI)
- Car accidents (both while drinking or as a pedestrian involved in an accident)
- Losing friends because of inappropriate actions
Every year in Australia, hospitals must look after more than 60,000 patients as a result of drinking too much alcohol.
Long term consequences of binge drinking
The short term consequences of binge dinking are potentially serious. However, they are small compared to the far more dangerous long term consequences. In the long term, the main consequences of binge drinking include:
- Mental illness, including:
- Increased risk of cancer, including:
- Increased risk of neurological disorders, including:
- Heart disease, including:
- Liver problems, including:
- Swelling of the liver
- Poor immune system
- Long term alcohol abuse (60% increased risk)
- Illicit drug abuse (70% increased risk)
- Increased risk of smoking
- 120% greater chance of having a criminal conviction
- Becoming socially isolated
The above list is not complete, but does provide an overview of the main long term consequences of alcohol abuse. It is impossible to tell exactly how much a person has to drink to develop these specific consequences, but it is well known that drinking more than 2 standard drinks per day is harmful.
How to avoid binge drinking
The only way to avoid binge drinking is to know how much you are actually drinking, and then limit your total alchol consumption. This sounds much easier than it actually is. Firstly, a single ‘drink’ is often much more than a standard drink. A standard drink is exactly 10 grams of pure alcohol. This translates into:
- 1 can (375ml) of light beer
- 1 pot (285ml) of full strength beer
- ¾ can of regular beer
- 1 shot (30ml) of spirits
- 1 small glass (only 100ml) of wine
It is very hard to assess how much you are being served, and it is even harder to know how many standard drinks are contained in pre-mixed drinks and cocktails. Sweet pre-mixed drinks (alcopops) mask the taste of alcohol, but have a high alcohol content.
Also know your limits and know how alcohol affects you. The amount you can drink depends on your size (bigger people can drink more than smaller people), your metabolism, and how fast you drink. Set yourself a limit of how much you are going to drink, and then stick to that limit.
Always remember to have a designated non-drinker if you are going out. This is both for driving you home, and to generally look out for the drinkers in the group and make sure they don’t do anything dangerous.
Some other tips to avoid binge drinking include:
- Start with a non-alcoholic drink
- Drink slowly (take sips and not gulps)
- Try low alcoholic beverages (e.g. light beer)
- Eat a meal before drinking alcohol
- Have 1 drink at a time and avoid topping up
- Avoid rounds or ‘shouts’
- Avoid drinking games
- Pace yourself and drink non-alcoholic beverages between the alcoholic ones
- Be assertive – don’t let yourself be pressured into drinking more than you can
- Stay busy, do not just sit and drink
If you think that you have a problem with alcohol, speak to your health care professional.
|For more information on drinking alcohol, including drinking disorders and alcohol’s effect on the body, as well as some useful tools, see Alcohol.|
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