CDC: 1 in 5 Mainers binge drinks

Posted Jan. 13, 2012, at 6:49 p.m.

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Maine has a higher prevalence of binge drinking than most other states, according to new government health data.

About one in five Maine adults reported binging on alcohol at least once in the previous month, compared to one in six nationally, new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows.

“Alcohol is still the number one drug of choice in the state,” said Geoffrey Miller, associate director of the state office of substance abuse.

Binge drinking is generally defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more for men over a period of a few hours. Mainers down an average of eight alcoholic beverages when they binge drink.

Nationally, binge drinking is most common among those ages 18 to 24, who average more than nine drinks on each occasion. But those 65 years of age and older binge drink the most often, averaging more than five times a month, according to the CDC report, which highlights the dangers of binge drinking. The binge drinking rates were generally highest among northern states.

The CDC data is based on telephone surveys last year of more than 450,000 adults asked about their alcohol consumption over the prior month.

Alcohol sales figures, however, suggest people are buying much more beer, wine and liquor than they say they are consuming. Health officials estimate that about half of the alcohol consumed in the U.S. by adults each year is consumed during binge drinking. For youths, it rises to 90 percent.

“I know this sounds astounding, but I think the numbers we’re reporting are really an underestimate,” said Dr. Robert Brewer, who leads the alcohol program at the CDC.

According to the CDC report, “Most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent or alcoholics.”

At the University of Maine, drug and alcohol educators have retired the term “binge drinking,” preferring “high-risk drinking” instead, said Lauri Sidelko, director of the school’s alcohol and drug education program.

“[Students] don’t connect with it,” she said. “It’s a language thing. They feel like ‘binge drinking’ is so five minutes ago,” she said.

Her program teaches students to recognize their personal tolerance for alcohol and about the legal implications of underage drinking, Sidelko said.

“Just because you’re in college and people see this as a rite of passage doesn’t mean you won’t get a summons,” she said.

A two-year-old program at UMaine called “I’ve Got Your Back” rewards students who call for help when a friend overdoses on alcohol by giving both the caller and the drinker one free pass on any legal consequences, Sidelko said. Fear of getting in trouble can inhibit students from helping someone with alcohol poisoning, she said.

“Bystander intervention, in my view, is the most successful thing we’ve done,” Sidelko said.

The state’s efforts to combat binge drinking include working with retailers and law enforcement to prevent alcohol from getting into minors’ hands, according to Miller. Its “Party Smarter” campaign urges adults to plan ahead, pace their drinking and leave their credit cards at home.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.