Here’s a Moderate Amount of Data About Today’s Moderate Drinking

I’m still waiting for a public-service ad with the headline, “Sobriety—America’s Silent Killer.” A mass of evidence has accumulated in recent years to indicate that moderate drinking can be good for one’s health. But have Americans paid any heed? A Gallup survey yields a mixed verdict.

For starters, 38 percent of the adults polled said they abstain altogether from alcohol—a proportion that has varied little in recent years. Even among people who do indulge, 36 percent of the women and 25 percent of the men reported having a grand total of zero drinks in the week before being queried. But that’s down from the early 1990s, when half of self-described drinkers had gone the week without a sip. This decline in the dry-for-a-week cohort has been accompanied by a roughly equivalent rise (to 50 percent) in the proportion of drinkers who consumed from one to seven drinks in the previous week. Thus, there’s been what Gallup calls a “big increase in light drinking.” Twelve percent of non-abstainers reported having 8-19 drinks in the past seven days, while just 6 percent confessed to downing 20 or more. (We’ll reserve our suspicions about the 2 percent who said they “don’t know.”)

Gallup says the past three years accounted for much of the rise in the incidence of drinking. One sees this reflected in the proportion of drinkers who said they’d imbibed in the 24 hours prior to being surveyed. That figure climbed to 31 percent in the current poll from 26 percent in 2000. For historical perspective, though, note that the figure was 39 percent in 1988. The proportion of drinkers who report they sometimes consume more than they should has dipped since 2000, from 26 percent then to 24 percent now. When drinkers do drink, what’s their pleasure? A plurality (42 percent) said they have beer most often, vs. 33 percent saying they opt for wine and 22 percent citing liquor. That represents a slight gain for wine and a slight decline for beer during the past decade.

Finally, the poll indicates that Americans haven’t taken to heart the numerous reports about the health benefits of a daily dram. When respondents were asked whether they think moderate drinking is good, bad or indifferent for one’s health, the good-for-you vote was a hair lower than the bad-for-you tally (24 percent vs. 25 percent, with 49 percent saying it “makes no difference”). If it had the nerve to do so, Big Alcohol could argue that lives are being lost because it hasn’t been free to educate consumers about the salubrious qualities of its products.