Some years ago in the long-running animated TV show, "The Simpsons," Homer Simpson offered a simple toast that accurately captures modern sentiments toward drinking as well as any we've heard. "Here's to alcohol," he says lifting his mug of beer to a crowd. "The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems."
Most Americans are likely aware of alcoholism and the dangers associated with that disease, but they continue to be charmed by liquor in all its forms. Drinking occasionally or even in moderation is one thing, but the dangers that stem from so-called "binge drinking" are not necessarily taken as seriously as they ought to be.
A new study should reinforce that concern. While alcohol use is not more widespread across the United States than it had been, binge drinking is. Binge drinking is defined as consuming at least five drinks at a time for men and four for women. And Maryland, according to the study published last week in the Journal of Public Health, is running ahead of the country in this development — binge drinking is up 20.8 percent in Maryland compared to 8.9 percent nationally from 2005 to 2012.
Binge drinking is not the same as alcohol dependency. It's not necessarily a daily behavior but a common one, nonetheless. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the typical binge drinker consumes six drinks at a sitting and does so about four times a month while young adults (ages 18-34) or seniors (over 65) who binge drink might do so five or six times per month.
The problem is that binge drinking is strongly associated with accidents (car crashes, drownings and other unintentional harm), sexual assault, domestic violence, sexually transmitted disease, unintended pregnancy, liver disease, failure to control diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke. Studies have suggested that the cost of alcohol, including binge drinking, to the United States exceeded the $223.5 billion mark in 2006.
Just as troubling, it appears Maryland's high binge drinking rate is driven in large part by women. The study found that binge drinking by women in this state rose by more than one-third (34.7 percent) during the same seven-year time frame. That's a huge change in self-reported behavior, perhaps evidence that the sensibilities of cable television — in programming like Bravo's "Real Housewives" reality TV franchise where binge drinking is practically the common thread to every episode's plot line — are either reflecting or leading the charge.
Without sounding prudish or like the prohibitionists of a century ago, Marylanders need to understand that one doesn't have to be passing out in the gutter every night snuggled up to an empty fifth of vodka to have a problem with alcohol. The message that an occasional glass of wine in the evening might have some modest health benefit seems to have entered the public consciousness much more readily than the far more substantial harm that results from binge drinking — a threat not just to the individual but to the broader society that must deal with the associated crime, unintended victims and resulting health care costs.
Maryland's political leaders seem to have shown a heightened sensitivity to heroin overdoses as a health concern in the past year, and that's great. There have also been efforts made to curb the abuse of prescription drugs, too. Entirely appropriate. But these latest numbers strongly suggest not nearly enough has been done to address the more widespread problems associated with excess alcohol consumption, perhaps because so many take it for granted.
How might the problem be tackled? The traditional public health remedies are clear enough: Raising alcohol-related taxes, limiting the number of places where alcohol can be purchased, holding tavern owners and others liable when patrons are allowed to drink to excess, getting tougher on drunk driving and better educating the public on alcohol misuse.
All those strategies tend to meet with resistance, particularly from the alcohol industry, which has considerable clout in the political process. But that shouldn't deter lawmakers from recognizing that Maryland, like much of the country, is headed in the wrong direction. As even a cartoon character can recognize, heavy drinking is not solving anything — except perhaps for those who are too drunk to recognize their plight.