Alcohol inequality

by on October 5, 2014 at 3:08 am in Data Source, Food and Drink | Permalink

I double-checked these figures with [Philip] Cook, just to make sure I wasn’t reading them wrong. “I agree that it’s hard to imagine consuming 10 drinks a day,” he told me. But, “there are a remarkable number of people who drink a couple of six packs a day, or a pint of whiskey.”

As Cook notes in his book, the top 10 percent of drinkers account for well over half of the alcohol consumed in any given year. On the other hand, people in the bottom three deciles don’t drink at all, and even the median consumption among those who do drink is just three beverages per week.

The piece, by Christopher Ingraham, is interesting throughout.  Here is my earlier post on “The culture of guns, the culture of alcohol”, one of my favorites.

Addendum: Via Robert Wiblin, Trevor Butterworth offers a good critique of the data.

1 Aldous October 5, 2014 at 3:14 am

Unfortunately unsurprising.

Humans will gravitate to the path of least resistance.

Some have a greater capacity for future orientation and can “resist” immediate gratification.

See also: Fat People, Large Percentage of Poor People etc.

#UglyTruth #Baumeister

2 So Much for Subtlety October 5, 2014 at 4:55 am

I expect that ten drinks a day is pretty close to the limit of what is worse for you than not drinking anything. I think at eight standard units a day your health starts to get worse the more you drink.

Given that other factors are probably at work – think how many people drink that much and hold down a job – I think it would be hard to show that drinking two bottles of wine a day was bad for your health.

Notice they are just looking at what you did last week. Not what you do day in and day out.

3 Doug October 5, 2014 at 10:51 am

Ten drinks a day (~140 grams) is definitely way past the level of break-even alcohol consumption. The break-even point is probably lower than six drinks (~84 grams). If you smoke, are overweight, physically inactive or have a family history of cancer, the break-even point is much lower.

4 Lord Action October 6, 2014 at 10:13 am

See the graph excerpted from the New England Journal of Medicine. Alcohol continues to have positive effects on health through >6 drinks a day. The heart health effects are much more powerful and swamp the negatives. There is talk about changing the alcohol guidance for pregnant women to allow moderate drinking on this basis.

For non-pregnant men and women, drinking more than 6 drinks a day is _less_ dangerous than drinking nothing. Advising avoidance of alcohol is irresponsible. The sweet spot is about one drink a day.

5 Floccina October 7, 2014 at 6:07 pm

What does that include? Like is falling off a porch considered? How about assault?
That is just so hard for me to believe. When I drank if I drank 6 drinks the next day I felt like I was going to die right then. Anyway I hate the stuff, I better start on the coffee (see below) but even that gives me the shakes.

6 Lord Action October 8, 2014 at 1:36 pm

It’s all-cause mortality, so it includes everything. DUI, assault, cirrhosis. It turns out the beneficial heart health effect is very strong and those other problems are exaggerated.

7 Floccina October 9, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Thanks Lord Action that is interesting. It could be like exercise in that alcohol is poison and does damage in the short term but perhaps the body does a little extra in the recover process. Still it is very easy to be thrown off doing statistical studies.

For myself I do not understand why people like feeling of being drunk.

8 Mark Thorson October 5, 2014 at 11:06 am

The health impact may depend on how much coffee you drink. Coffee protects against cirrhosis of the liver. This is not a small effect — risk reduced by more than half for one cup daily, more than 80% for three cups.

9 Kabal October 5, 2014 at 11:29 am

“The health impact may depend on how much coffee you drink. Coffee protects against cirrhosis of the liver.”

I want to believe…

10 Mark Thorson October 5, 2014 at 1:32 pm
11 Doug October 5, 2014 at 7:12 pm

Thanks for the link on coffee, interesting.

12 The Other Jim October 5, 2014 at 12:56 pm

You guys are on crack. Or hammered, I can’t tell which.

There is no level of alcohol consumption that is “beneficial,” just as there is no level of nicotine consumption that is beneficial. Or caffeine or heroin, for that matter.

While there may be a consumption level that is close to break-even, it is completely impossible to stay there due to the addictive nature of the substance. You will always need more to reach the place you are trying to reach. Much like thermodynamics, you can’t win.

Now get back to the bar and have a laugh about this before you learn something.

13 Brian October 5, 2014 at 1:55 pm

And we know this is all true because…, The Other Jim says so, apparently.

14 Mark Thorson October 5, 2014 at 3:50 pm

No, it’s in the Koran, or maybe the Book of Mormon.

15 Doug October 5, 2014 at 7:09 pm

Your statement regarding alcohol is prima facie ridiculous, so I’ll skip over it. But your beliefs relating to nicotine are common and incorrect. First nicotine itself is probably healthy, particularly for people with family histories of dementia. The negative health effects of cigarettes are nearly entirely due to the combustion of organic material. Consumption in the form of gum or e-cigarettes eliminates this problem. Second nicotine itself does not appear any more addictive than caffeine. The main reason cigarettes are so addictive is because of the pretense of MAOIs in tobacco which radically modified the pharmacodynamics.

16 mccaff October 6, 2014 at 6:14 pm


17 mccaff October 6, 2014 at 6:17 pm

in reply 2 :
“So Much for Subtlety October 5, 2014 at 4:55 am

I expect that ten drinks a day is pretty close to the limit of what is worse for you than not drinking anything. I think at eight standard units a day your health starts to get worse the more you drink.

“Given that other factors are probably at work – think how many people drink that much and hold down a job – I think it would be hard to show that drinking two bottles of wine a day was bad for your health.

Notice they are just looking at what you did last week. Not what you do day in and day out.”

18 Ray Lopez October 5, 2014 at 3:44 am

I’ve seen the stats where the average European (especially France) drinks 3.6 liters of wine a week (12% alcohol), or about a gallon a person a week, and now I see where these stats come from. In Russia I have seen a person down an entire liter of vodka (40% alcohol) in one sitting.

19 Ak Mike October 5, 2014 at 3:03 pm

Ray, if my arithmetic holds up, a gallon of wine a week yields around 2.4 ounces (=68 grams) of alcohol a day – not a huge amount. On the other hand, your Russian friend knocked back 400 grams (or 14 ounces) of alcohol at once – a very different matter.

20 Clover October 5, 2014 at 8:33 pm

One liter, if “liter” is to be taken literally is 22.5 shots. He’d be about at death level BAC unless he was very fat.

21 Marian Kechlibar October 6, 2014 at 5:55 am

In Central and Eastern Europe there are cases of people who are caught driving(!) with BAC of 0.4 or more. Some notorious drunkards can probably survive such levels just fine.

22 Mondfledermaus October 6, 2014 at 11:03 am

Look at the male life expectancy in Russia and Ukraine, Death Level BAC is achieved frequently.

23 Splendid October 9, 2014 at 7:20 am

A gallon is 128 ounces.

24 Guyren G Howe October 5, 2014 at 3:54 am

I feel compelled to point out that there is a surprisingly strong countervailing medical argument for why alcohol consumption should not just be condoned but the social costs withstanding should perhaps be encouraged:

Don’t get me wrong; I think the comparison between gun and alcohol control is really neat. But I’m inclined to be lax on both alcohol and gun control. The latter because it doesn’t appear to be particularly useful, and the former pending an analysis that incorporates this apparently substantial health benefit from drinking. Or just because folks should be able to be left alone in the absence of compelling argument otherwise.

25 dearieme October 5, 2014 at 4:47 am

One would expect, would one not, American attitudes to booze to be irrational, given that the US was a gathering place for most of the religious nut-cases in Europe.

26 Art Deco October 5, 2014 at 10:10 am

As opposed to the nutcases you find in grand orient lodges, completely unaffiliated, or addled with a farrago of pagan imagery who gave you Communist Parties all over continental Europe co-incident with fascist movements over much of continental Europe.


While we’re at it, have you visited a dentist in the last ten years, ducky?

27 derek October 5, 2014 at 10:38 am

If you want weird attitudes towards liquor hang around those who support unionized government liquor stores in Canada.

28 Thor October 5, 2014 at 8:47 pm

In Canada, you can be served at a private liquor outlet, by a disinterested pimply youngster who can’t distinguish a cab from a merlot. Or you can be served at a govt store, by a slow, disinterested middle aged bureaucrat who will retired with a good pension at 60 or thereabouts.

In case A, the kids get job experience. In case B, best that can be said is that the workers can raise a family and own a home on their salary.

29 fallibilist October 5, 2014 at 11:20 am

What a toxic comment! #well-poisoning

30 Slocum October 5, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Not a lot of religious ‘nut cases’ in Scandinavia, and yet:

“We like to start this post with a sincere apology to all the inhabitants and fans of Scandinavia. Yes, we know about the beautiful nature; the beautiful lakes, fjords, forests, bright skies and fresh air. The amazing myths, legends and fairy tales. As well as the heroic history of the fearless vikings and it’s current noble inhabitants of tall strong men and gorgeous girls. Yes, we know all that but still we won’t set foot on Scandinavian territory. Cause no matter if it’s Norway, Sweden or Finland; we hate your ridiculous alcohol policies.”

31 dan1111 October 5, 2014 at 10:10 am

The evidence is far less clear than that article implies.

32 dearieme October 5, 2014 at 4:37 am

“there are a remarkable number of people who drink a couple of six packs a day, or a pint of whiskey.” Aw, come on; they are just little American pints.

33 dearieme October 5, 2014 at 4:39 am

“the median consumption among those who do drink is just three beverages per week”. Pah! My cardiologist asked me how much I drank. “A glass with dinner five or six times a week.” “Make it seven” he replied. Sound man.

34 Art Deco October 5, 2014 at 10:05 am

British, right?

35 Dismalist October 5, 2014 at 12:19 pm

Upon telling my cardiologist how much I drank [one hell of a lot], he mumbled: That’s OK!

36 Mark Thorson October 5, 2014 at 7:00 pm

Alcohol has several cardiovascular benefits (including lowering blood pressure and reducing cholesterol), but red wine has an additional benefit of improving endothelial function. The endothelium is the one-cell thick lining of the blood vessels. Endothelial dysfunction has been implicated in the etiology of atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s Disease.

37 Dismalist October 5, 2014 at 9:54 pm

Thank you, Mark. I’ve heard this before, sort of, but not nearly as specifically as you put it. Now I’ll have to re-optimize and will undoubtedly wind up drinking much more red relative to white!

38 uair01 October 5, 2014 at 6:11 am

“But I’m inclined to be lax on both alcohol and gun control. … Or just because folks should be able to be left alone in the absence of compelling argument otherwise.”

Last week I read this book. Interesting and well written. And a powerful plea for decriminalisation, liberalisation and better regulation of drug markets. But the book also admits that this might be politically infeasible, Book highly recommended:

39 Coeren October 5, 2014 at 9:40 am

So if only ~10% of the population might routinely abuses alcohol — society should severely control 100% of the population for possible alcohol abuse.

All aspects of alcohol manufacture/sale/consumption should be heavily controlled (and taxed). Legal adults (18-20) should totally be prohibited from drinking; warrantless police stops/checkpoints for all motorists should routinely be conducted; drivers should be arrested/caged for merely having an open container of alcohol in their vehicles.

Mass control and punishment is the best method to eliminate alcohol problems in society… and avoids any inequality before the law.

40 Marian Kechlibar October 6, 2014 at 5:33 am

I am generally a proponent of the “liberalization and personal responsibility” scheme, but, in my opinion, the percentage of the problematic users matters.

‘We’, as the ethnicities who inherited alcohol resistence from our forefathers’, can cope with alcohol quite well, and only about 10 per cent of us will develop a serious alcohol problem.

But what about the Inuit and the Native Americans, whose genetics makes them much more vulnerable to drink? Are the attempts of the reservation leaders to keep their lands “dry” more understandable, although probably doomed to failure anyway?

41 Art Deco October 5, 2014 at 10:04 am

And a powerful plea for decriminalisation, liberalisation and better regulation of drug markets.

The political program of arrested development cases.

42 fallibilist October 5, 2014 at 11:36 am

Empty snark.

43 derek October 5, 2014 at 12:01 pm

You forgot your hash tag.

44 HL October 5, 2014 at 1:42 pm


45 Tarrou October 5, 2014 at 8:05 am

Ten drinks in a day is hard to imagine? It’s all about pacing.

Ten drinks at a dinner party is going to get ugly. Thirty drinks at hunting camp, where you start at 0400 in the morning and don’t pack it in until midnight, isn’t all that much of a bender. It’s 1.5 drinks per hour, just a lot of hours. To this day, the old hands don’t consider beer to be “drinking”, only hard liquor. Once your tolerance reaches a certain level, beer will have little effect unless you’re slamming them like a freshman.

46 Kevin October 5, 2014 at 10:12 pm

Baloney. Tolerance lessens the intoxicating effect of all alcohols, but they all continue to have an effect on the body. My father died of cirrhosis at 45 and never touched anything except beer. He had the tremendous tolerance all chronic alcoholics develop, but that only meant he had to drink more to get a buzz. It was no protection for his liver.

47 Ted Craig October 5, 2014 at 8:24 am

I have to disagree with one of Tyler’s favorite blog posts. Heavy alcohol consumption is a symptom and not a disease. People with mental issues use alcohol to self-medicate. Depressives drink and they also commit suicide. Often, they do both at the same time, either with guns or cars (the amount of auto deaths that are actually suicides is greatly underestimated).

48 Art Deco October 5, 2014 at 10:03 am

What about the depressives who cannot be bothered with the drink? (A working majority of my maternal side relations).

49 The Other Jim October 5, 2014 at 1:03 pm

Heavy alcohol consumption starts as a symptom, and rapidly turns into a disease that is unrelated to your original problem(s).

This is why quitting is so difficult, and even laughingly impossible, to nearly everyone who has ever drank heavily on a semi-regular basis. Curing your disease means having to face your original problems, which you’ve been ignoring for years or decades. Alcohol is the solution, silly!

Sobriety is not for the weak. Much better to have 30 beers at a “hunting camp,” apparently. It’s very manly, no doubt.

50 The Original D October 5, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Eh, I have doubts about this. Yes, alcohol is often used to avoid problems, but there’s also evidence that alcoholics’ brains get much more pleasurable sensation from booze than conventional drinkers. I’m an alcoholic and so not a disinterested observer.

51 Kevin October 5, 2014 at 10:22 pm

You’re understanding of the data is sketchy (and a lot of the research is contradictory and certainly less than clear). I suspect your statement that alcoholics get “much more pleasurable” is an extrapolation from a recent heavily publicized study that did not survey chronic alcoholics and involved all of 25 people. Other Jim’s summary is very much what I observed as a practicing psychiatrist — an extremely difficult-to-treat drug or alcohol dependence on top of a long-standing psychiatric illness. Virtually impossible to treat the latter till they’re sober. I would send them to AA and tell them to come back when they had their 6 month token. Those that followed through often did very well. But most didn’t follow through.

52 agm October 5, 2014 at 4:44 pm

Akin to Heinlein’s censors, a prohibitionist is someone who decides that since they can’t handle their liquor, we must all drink water.

Except we’ve already tried that, and the nation swam in violence and corruption that would not have happened if only moralizing busybodies would have shut up and left those who enjoy that beautiful molecule alone, and they didn’t even manage to get the nation to drink less.

53 ChrisA October 5, 2014 at 8:40 am

My own personal experience makes me very skeptical of these numbers . In my youth I socialized frequently with many heavy drinkers and very few of them approached the level of 5 bottles of JD per week on a sustained basis. Their heavy drinking was pretty obvious so it makes me wonder how I missed the large number of people who were drinking more according this study. But let’s say it is true; the fact that many people find this amazing suggests that actually it is not doing all that much harm.

54 ChrisA October 5, 2014 at 10:42 pm

With Tyler’s amendment, we can see that I was basically correct. The guy doing the study basically took the survey answers and multiplied them all by two, just because he felt like the answers were too low. You would have though that the Journalist who wrote the original article might have dived into the detail sufficiently to mention this rather important fact. It is a good example of Gresham’s law, which applies not only to specie but also journalism and academic papers. Bad drives out good. If the author of the article had actually done his job properly, we would never have noticed his article or commented on it.

Interesting that the author of the study is clearly an anti-alcohol activist, but didn’t realize that he would actually be encouraging drinking to excess with this study. The basic message from this study is that large sections of the population engage in much more massive drinking than the normal, with surprisingly few social or health effects. So my more moderate drinking is most unlikely to be a problem. Cheers.

55 Turkey Vulture October 5, 2014 at 9:03 am

A beer starting on every hour from noon until 9 and you’re there. And an adult male won’t have more than a very light buzz at any point from that, at best.

56 Nylund October 5, 2014 at 11:18 am

In my neck of the woods there are plenty who spend both Saturday and Sunday drinking like this, from around noon til 9pm, a drink per hour. It’s called football season (college games on Saturday, NFL on Sunday).

Granted, that’s just two days of the week. I doubt those people drink like that every day.

57 The Other Jim October 5, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Nobody has a drink per hour for nine hours. That would be like driving cross-country at 30mph. No one drinks for nine hours and doesn’t get drunk.

They are probably drinking about double what you suspect, and I doubt they stop at 9pm. I would guess 12-18 beers each day, and 24 if they are obese. (But they’re light beers! So healthy!)

Furthermore, nobody has 24-36 beers on the weekend and then stays sober for five days. You can count on them slamming 6-9 beers after work, more if they can get out early, and more if they can sneak a few at lunch. Only on “special occasions” though, such as if there is a sporting event on TV, or if they find a reason to be in the same room as another heavy drinker, such as a brother or neighbor or complete stranger.

They can get to 35 on the weekend and another 35 spread across 3-5 weeknights very easily. And there’s your ten drinks a day.

58 The Original D October 5, 2014 at 3:48 pm

I once drank for beer for about 9 hours straight, consuming about 18 beers. I got pulled over and blew .0565, still well under the .08 limit. I weigh about 190 give or take.

59 Jeff October 5, 2014 at 7:26 pm

If I tried to drink one beer an hour for eight hours, I probably wouldn’t ever cross the drunkenness threshold, but I’ll bet I’d still pass out by hour six or seven. Drinking really tires me out. I think I read somewhere that this a genetic defense many people have against alcoholism. I’m betting the outliers in this article just don’t have this defense.

60 chuck martel October 5, 2014 at 9:21 am

The biggest benefits of power drinking are the marriages of otherwise unattractive and repellent people. Without being seen through the blur of alcohol millions would be leading lonely, empty childless lives instead of harassed, frustrated, responsible ones.

61 Alexandre Delaigue October 5, 2014 at 9:27 am

french actor Gerard Depardieu drinks 14 bottles of wine everyday, and is “never drunk” :

62 Art Deco October 5, 2014 at 10:02 am


63 Brent October 5, 2014 at 10:28 am

Pretty easy to do if you start with Schnapps in the coffee at 5 or 6AM and start drinking beer after work at 3PM or so.

64 Rob Wiblin October 5, 2014 at 10:30 am
65 Jonathan October 5, 2014 at 11:47 am

They’re very likely unreliable.

66 Doug October 5, 2014 at 10:48 am

Given that studies on alcohol rely on surveyed recall and not direct observation, how much of the ill health effect of heavy drinking is simply proxying for innumeracy?

67 Mesa October 5, 2014 at 10:52 am

This is (very) old news).

Fast food data looks the same, as do consumption data for a lot of things.

These posts are starting to sound a little….Blombergian or EU-ish in nature.

The original post had a sanctimonious call for voluntary abstinence from alcohol which I personally find much more offensive than an argument for taxing it or regulating it heavily (both justifiable). Creating a PC movement based on your personal snippy moral leanings? Really?

68 Imbiber October 5, 2014 at 10:52 am

I am totally with G. Howe on this one. Based on the most current research, most Americans can expect better health if they drink more alchohol, and very very few will be better off if they start drinking none. (Even people who drink quite a bit more than is optimal are still ahead of people who drink no alcohol at all). Guyren brought the key link.

I also want to weight in on the food aspect. If we were to rate one category of food on a variety of considerations esteemed by connoisseurs, I think that on criteria such as complexity, satisfaction, regional uniqueness, etc. alchoholic beverages would come out near the top and probably at the top. In addition, to paraphrase Falstaff, “Drink is not only tasty in itself but the cause that taste is in other foods”. Many would claim that not only is impossible to have a truly good meal without the adjunct of a drink to the food, but in fact a person cannot truly enjoy food itself without the appropriate drink for the food in question.

If you feel you never tasted a green pepper before you visited Bolivia, I think you should have your next meal with a good glass of wine and you will feel you have never tasted meat before.

69 bobster, the October 5, 2014 at 11:01 am

It is not unusual to see someone in the “craft beer communiry” drink a 22oz “bomber” of 10%+ alcohol by himself.

That’s 4 drinks right there.

These numbers do not sound so crazy.

70 Andre October 5, 2014 at 11:46 am

I’m a big fan of the 22oz craft beers, but I find any of them about 8% alcohol to be undrinkable. Although it is pretty easy to go through two of them on a Friday.

I had a forty of Old English the other day for old times sake and it has less alcohol than some of these craft beers in the bay area.

71 Dave Barnes October 5, 2014 at 11:13 am

I had better step up my game.

Aren’t we all supposed to strive to be in the top 0.1%?

72 whatsthat October 5, 2014 at 11:40 am

I don’t believe these numbers.

73 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly October 5, 2014 at 12:04 pm

“I double-checked these figures with [Philip] Cook, just to make sure I wasn’t reading them wrong. ‘I agree that it’s hard to imagine consuming 10 drinks a day,’ he told me. But, ‘there are a remarkable number of people who drink a couple of six packs a day, or a pint of whiskey.'”

Clearly, he’s never met a lawyer.

But kidding aside, the “inequality” meme actually seems to be a useful framework for thinking about this—it’s difficult to imagine that roughly $30 Million Americans consume at least 10 drinks each and every day; but that’s not actually what the data say in the first place. The data say that the average consumption within the top decile is ~10 drinks per day, but just as the top decile of the income distribution is actually more divergent at the top end than other deciles, I would bet that the top decile of alcohol consumption follows a similar pattern, with some people consuming 15-25 drinks per day (which, if you’ve ever met a true alcoholic, is really not that difficult to imagine), and skewing the average among the rest of the people in the top decile who probably consume 5-8 drinks per day (which is still a little high, but not nearly as shocking as that ~10/day figure).

74 HL October 5, 2014 at 1:50 pm

A sixer right after work is just the lubrication needed to transition from BS work life to BS home life. Protip: start on an empty stomach before dinner to get your moneys worth. Also, weed is much more cost effective than beer for this purpose.

75 HL October 5, 2014 at 1:52 pm

Also 30 packs are just as cost efficient as a keg. Why is this?

76 dirk October 5, 2014 at 1:54 pm


77 Anon October 5, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Any sane person lies to their doctor about the amount of alcohol they consume. That is not information you want in a database for the insurance companies to use against you at a later date, and it’s usually superfluous to the reason for the visit.

78 Clover October 5, 2014 at 9:09 pm

It doesn’t surprise me that TC doesn’t want an armed populace. I tried to think of an intellectual way to say I like my alcohol, but, nah, i like my alcohol. 90% of the population handles it fine, and of the rest I don’t think they’d be all that much better without it. How about a voluntary prohibition on obesity?

79 Ricardo October 6, 2014 at 10:20 am

You make an interesting point. Tyler once expressed wonder that people would drink in front of kids. But do foodies contribute to obesity by glamorizing food? Hadn’t ever thought of that.

80 Marian Kechlibar October 6, 2014 at 10:32 am

“Tyler once expressed wonder that people would drink in front of kids.”

Ah, good old puritanism. Alcohol is Vice and must be Concealed from the eyes of the Innocent! 400 years after Mayflower, and still going strong.

As if there was no difference (in the kid’s eyes) between drinking a glass of wine with dinner and getting yourself drunk stiff. Actually, the kids probably do understand the difference better, because they aren’t indoctrinated by the prevailing prejudice so thoroughly yet.

81 Albigensian October 6, 2014 at 11:37 am

Well, now we know why ads for alcoholic beverages are so dumb: they’re all competing for those ten-drinks-a-day customers (who’ve probably already consumed quite a few before seeing the ad).

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