Do You Drink Too Much? How to Know When You're a Booze Hound

A new Web site helps users gauge how severe their drinking habits are.

March 11, 2009 — -- Whether you're a college student prone to binge-drinking or a professional who regularly drinks a glass of wine with dinner, specialists are encouraging drinkers of all kinds to pause and consider whether their imbibing could be a precursor to alcoholism.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism launched a new Web site dubbed "Rethinking Drinking" to help Americans gauge whether their boozing could lead to trouble.

"The goal of the site is to provide information to people and to help them identify if they're drinking too much," said Dr. Mark Willenbring, the director of treatment and recovery research at the NIAAA, which is part of the National Institute of Health.

"The idea is to identify the problems at an earlier stage and change them before they develop more severe problems," said Willenbring.

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Using fact sheets and interactive tools, such as a drink calculator and a survey that tells users how their drinking habits compare with their peers, Willenbring hopes the site will alert drinkers to the risks of over-indulging.

In any given year, about 30 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 and up will drink an excess of the maximum recommended daily alcohol limits, but only 4 percent of those are considered to be alcoholics, according to Willenbring.

Women should have no more than three standard drinks in a day or seven in a week, and a man should have no more than four in one day or 14 in a week, according to the site.

For those who exceed these limits, Willenbring said that one in four already suffers from alcoholism or alcohol abuse and the remainder are at an increased risk for these and other problems.


"Most people don't know when they're drinking at a risk level," he said. "When most people think of someone who has a drinking problem, they think of an individual whose life is falling apart, but that only really occurs with the most severe alcoholics."

'Rethinking Drinking' Gauges How High-Risk Your Drinking Habits Are

Willenbring likens the new NIAAA Web site to many weight loss plans. "Rethinking Drinking" encourages users to change their drinking habits to avoid medical complications in the future, just like many diets advise altering your eating patterns to prevent conditions such as heart disease later in life, he said.

"When someone has high cholesterol, we want to get it down to reduce their risk of having a heart attack in the future," said Willenbring. "This is the same thing -- we're reducing people's risk for developing future problems like liver disease and alcoholic dependency by encouraging them to monitor their drinking habits early on."

Many drinkers who take the online surveys will be surprised to find that they are actually drinking more than what is medically advised, said Willenbring, who adds that most people have a misunderstanding of what constitutes one standard drink.

"Heavy drinkers will absolutely be surprised at what they find," he said. "I don't think people have any idea about serving sizes."

One standard drink, according to the NIAAA, is any drink that contains about 0.6 fluid ounces of "pure" alcohol, such as 12 fluid ounces of beer, 5 fluid ounces of table wine or a shot glass of hard liquor.

While Willenbring hopes the Web site and brochure will spread across the nation to doctor's offices, counseling centers and universities, he says every person who simply visits the site to learn more about drinking will help make the project a success.

"A lot of research shows that facilitated self-change is really quite effective," he said. "There are studies showing that Internet interventions are effective in college students in reducing binge-drinking and consequences from binge-drinking."

Emily Bailin, a 24-year-old recent college graduate, told that she was interested to find that her drinking habits were considered "high-risk" by the Web site.

"On average I have two to three drinks when I go out, and I consider myself to be responsible with my drinking, so that when they told me I was leaning toward ... more "high-risk" drinking, I was very surprised," said Bailin.

"Having two to three drinks in one sitting or over the span of a few hours is perfectly 'normal' among my peers," said Bailin, "And that's a problem."

Drinking Web Site as Counselor

Harris Stratyner, a licensed psychologist and the regional vice president of Pennsylvania's Caron Treatment Centers, said that while he applauds NIAAA for developing the site, he does have some reservations about its effectiveness.

The common defense mechanisms of alcoholics -- denial, projection and rationalization -- may make those who visit this site think they don't have a problem, according to Stratyner.

"I just worry about people who are going to rationalize their behavior and say, 'Oh, I don't drink that much,'" he said. "Nobody is there [on the Web site] to question their judgment."

Stratyner explained that an inherent problem is that Web sites by their nature generalize and are unable to cater to an individual's needs.

"What if someone reads that you can drink 14 drinks in a week if you're a man but then they don't read the section about interference with particular medications?" said Stratyner.

Even though Stratyner recognizes that this site and others like it can never be perfect because of its lack of person-to-person contact, he does laud NIAAA for its efforts.

"The NIAAA really had guts to do this," said Stratyner. "To try and help people at a time when we need to raise people's consciousness and while people might not be able to afford therapy.

"At least they're trying."


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