In recent years there have been plenty of reports about the rising use — to addictive and even fatal overdose levels — of legal medication like opioids. So it’s no surprise that the same trend holds true for alcoholic products.
Christopher Ingraham, a former reporter for The Washington Post who recently left the paper to start his own blog, The Why Axis, at substack.com, has analyzed federal data and put together an insightful report about alcohol consumption in America.
Estimating there are 0.6 ounces of alcohol in the typical can of beer, glass of wine or shot of liquor, Ingraham wrote: “The average American drank a little over 500 alcoholic beverages in 2019, according to a Why Axis analysis of recent federal data. That works out to roughly one and a half drinks per day for every American over the age of 13.”
For the curious, Mississippians rank below average, at an estimated 435 to 475 drinks per person each year. Louisiana is much higher, at 545 to 610.
To make the subject even more interesting, Ingraham cited various federal data that estimates about one-third of American adults don’t drink at all. Excluding those people raises the annual alcohol consumption per drinker to 770 drinks per year, or more than two a day.
A chart dating back to 1934, when Prohibition ended, shows a rapid increase in the number of drinks per person (including non-drinkers), starting at 200 a year when alcohol once again became legal, and peaking at 500 in the mid-1940s — when there was a world war going on and people understandably fretted.
The next big jump upward was from 1960 to 1981 — peaking at close to 600 drinks a year. Again, there are some reasons for the increase. Ingraham noted that a lot of states boosted the market for legal drinking by lowering their drinking age to 18. Also, the sheer numbers of Baby Boomers hitting their 20s, which are the prime drinking years for most people, played a key role in rising alcohol use.
In 1982, per-capita drinks started a nosedive, all the way down to the 450 per person range in the mid-1990s. Big chunks of this decline can be attributed to the nationally set drinking age of 21 in 1984, plus the impact of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Since then, through 2019, the rate has been slowly increasing but remains far below its 1981 Boomer-fueled peak. Reasons for this steady rise include the liquor industry’s 1996 decision to end its voluntary television advertising ban; women are drinking more than they used to; and the idea promoted by the industry that one or two drinks a day is good for you.
“The industry would prefer you ignore newer, more carefully conducted research showing that once you correct for the fact that many people had to quit drinking precisely because alcohol was wrecking their health, those supposed benefits tend to disappear,” Ingraham writes. It’s a fair point.
And here’s the most important item of the article: Rates of alcohol abuse and dependency have been rising since the 1990s. Ingraham believes there’s an obvious parallel between the ongoing drug-overdose “deaths of despair” and problems with alcohol. He believes, with some justification, that “The alcohol industry relies on alcoholism to survive.”
Looking ahead, the numbers do not include 2020 statistics from the pandemic, when Ingraham estimates that consumption may have increased in the 10% range in a single year.
“The stressors of modern capitalist life appear to be driving growing numbers of us to seek chemical relief at any cost,” Ingraham writes. It’s not just drugs; it’s also drinks.