WebMD Medical News
Laura J. Martin, MD
Oct. 13, 2011 -- When the going gets tough, it seems that a lot of us may go drinking.
Along with higher unemployment and bankruptcy, an economic recession brings increased drinking of alcohol, a study suggests. The increased use of alcohol includes binge drinking, problem drinking, and driving under the influence.
The study is published in Health Economics.
The findings run counter to what had previously been thought about drinking habits during economic downturns.
"It was thought that when unemployment goes up, income goes down and people will consume less because they don't have the resources," says study researcher Michael T. French, PhD, a professor of health economics at the University of Miami.
"People are self-medicating with alcohol," French says. "If you have more free time, you can engage in activities like drinking more frequently than if you were employed. The self-medication and leisure time effect are dominating the income effect."
The new study tracked alcohol drinking patterns from 2001 to 2005, which predates the current recession. This means that things may be a whole lot worse now, French says. "There will also likely be an uptick in addiction and treatment admissions due to alcohol abuse."
According to the new report, overall, people drink more during a recession, but African-Americans and people aged 18 to 24 are among the most likely to binge drink.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person's blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or above. For men, this may occur after having five or more drinks in about two hours. Among women, binge drinking involves four or more drinks in about two hours.
It's not just the down and out that are drowning their spirits with spirits either. Drinking is more common as the education level and income goes up, the study shows.
People who are employed binge drink more frequently and are more likely to drive after having too much to drink during a bad economy than during a good one, French says.
"Even if you have a job, you may be concerned about losing it or maybe you are worried about other family members who are at risk for losing a job," he says.
We are talking about the high-functioning alcohol abuser here, says addiction specialist Paul Leslie Hokemeyer, PhD. He works at the Caron Treatment Center's New York City office.
"From the outside, their lives look perfect," he says. "They have a job, two cars, own a house, and have kids in private schools, but they are being eaten up by a sense of anxiety and helplessness."
"People who do have jobs may keep it together and go to work during the week, but then on the weekend, they start drinking and they can't stop," he says.
Many people do use alcohol to ease their anxiety -- and a bad economy definitely fuels anxiety.
"They think, 'Everything is falling apart, so screw it, I am going to drink,'" he says.
There are healthier ways to deal with stress and anxiety. Addiction and problem drinking thrive in isolation, he says. "Bring other people into your lives and talk about what is happening."
Henry Wechsler, PhD, has made a career out of studying drinking habits and patterns. He is a lecturer in the department of society, human development, and health at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, and the former director of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study.
A recession "may indicate less available money to buy alcohol," he says in an email. "The downturn brings with it increased unemployment or fewer hours of employment, and may indicate more available time to drink and fewer competing activities with drinking."
There are many risks associated with increased alcohol consumption, he says. "They include major ones: violence, vandalism, sexually transmitted diseases through unprotected sex, automobile collisions, and self-inflicted injuries."
SOURCES:Henry Wechsler, PhD, lecturer, department of society, human development, and health, Harvard School of Public Health.Davalos, M. Health Economics, 2011.Michael T. French, PhD, professor, health economics, University of Miami.Paul Leslie Hokemeyer, PhD, Caron Treatment Center, New York City.CDC web site: "Binge Drinking."
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