Sunday, April 19, 2009

Initiative urges thinking before drinking

Web site lets people learn what type of drinker they are

By Mary Brophy Marcus
USA Today

Many young adults socialize on weekends and weeknights at bars and parties where cocktails and beers flow, but most don't give much thought to their drinking habits, said Mark Willenbring, director of the Division of Treatment and Recovery Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. If they did, he said, it's likely that fewer people would develop problems with alcohol abuse later in life.

To that end, Willenbring and other experts at NIAAA have developed a "Rethinking Drinking" Web site — Rethinking — to help people who drink alcoholic beverages determine what type of drinker they are and whether they are at a risk for developing a drinking problem.

reducing risks

"Not everybody who drinks more than is medically healthy or recommended realizes they are doing it," Willenbring said. About 30 percent of Americans have too many drinks in one day at least once a year, he says.

The heaviest drinkers are primarily between the ages of 18 and 30, and they are the target population for "Rethinking Drinking," Willenbring said.

"They are a group that drinks more than is healthy, but doesn't have the health problems yet."

Willenbring likens the interactive Web site to a prevention tool. The approach is similar to how a doctor might focus on groups at risk for heart disease — those with high blood pressure or cholesterol — but who haven't had a heart attack yet. "We're really doing risk reduction," he said.

In any given year, about 4 percent of the population has alcohol dependence, or alcoholism, according to Willenbring. About 26 percent are heavy drinkers. "Even if these folks, the heavy drinkers, reduce their drinking, the public health impact is great," he said.

While many associate heavy drinking with liver problems, it can also increase the risk for heart disease, sleep disorders, depression, stroke and stomach bleeding. Consumed during pregnancy, it can cause fetal brain damage, said Fulton Crews, director of the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine. It's also linked to cancer.

"We know if you're a heavy drinker but not alcohol dependent, your risk of oral cavity cancer and also breast cancer are increased," Crews said.

at-risk drinking

The "Rethinking Drinking" site asks if visitors know what constitutes at-risk drinking. Many might be surprised to learn what does, said alcohol-abuse expert Charles O'Brien, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

"A heavy drinking day is a lot less than most people think it is," O'Brien said. "We have in college and universities many who do binge drinking and they don't even realize it. When I told my students the daily limits, they laughed at me. Many said that's barely getting started — that they have a few drinks in their dorm rooms even before going out drinking for the night."

The site provides illustrations and tables showing the amount of alcohol in a variety of drinks, including beer, wine and liquor. A calculator can help one estimate how much a typical toddy includes. Drinkers who want to make changes can find some helpful tools and resources, too.

The site isn't meant to promote abstinence, Willenbring says. It doesn't demonize alcohol. In fact, it even points out that light to moderate drinking on a regular basis can lower the risk for heart disease for some.

Schoolteacher, soccer mom, athlete, physician, husband — anyone who cares to find out if their drinking habits are risky or not can now do so on their own, Willenbring said.