Man Walks Into A Bar, Drinks More (But Not Too Much!) Than In 2005

With the world wildly in flux, let us give thanks for the comparative stability of people’s vices. One recent Gallup survey found scant change in the number of people who smoke, but a decline in the average number of cigarettes per smoker. Now, another Gallup poll, on people’s drinking habits, yields a fun-house-mirror image of those findings. The proportion of adults who drink alcoholic beverages stands at 64 percent—within a single percentage point of where it has averaged during more than a half-century. But Gallup also finds that those who do consume alcohol “are drinking more frequently and drinking more drinks each week.”

Among adults who ever drink, 71 percent reported doing so during the week before being surveyed. This includes the 36 percent who’d had one in the previous 24 hours. The average number of drinks per week now stands at 4.5—scarcely a bender, but much higher than the 2.8 drinks per week reported in Gallup’s 1996 poll. The figure is down, though, from its 2003 peak, when drinkers averaged 5.1 drinks per week. Still, just 16 percent of drinkers average more than one drink per day, and a mere 5 percent have more than 20 drinks in a typical week.

Perhaps people would drink more regularly if they bought into the idea (backed by numerous studies) that moderate drinking is good for one’s health. Drinkers and nondrinkers alike have been resistant to that happy thought, though. When asked whether they believe moderate drinking is good for a person’s health, “only about one in four say it is beneficial, while most say it makes no difference.” If people were as stubbornly oblivious to the consensus of medical opinion on any other matter, it would be regarded as a public-health tragedy. Perhaps enlightened citizens should wear claret-colored ribbons to raise consciousness about the benefits of a daily glass of wine. It’s not as if the nation faces a growing epidemic of drunkenness. Indeed, the increase in the frequency and amount of drinking has not been accompanied by a rise in the incidence of immoderate imbibing. Twenty-two percent of those who drink said they sometimes consume more than they should—”on the low end of what Gallup has measured historically.”

What sort of alcoholic beverage do drinkers have most often? In Gallup’s 2005 survey, wine had edged past beer. The natural order of the American drinking universe has been restored in this year’s poll, with a plurality of drinkers (41 percent) saying beer is what they drink most often. Wine ran a strong second (33 percent), with liquor trailing (23 percent).