What is Binge Drinking?

To most people, binge drinking brings to mind a self-destructive and unrestrained drinking bout lasting for at least a couple of days during which time the heavily intoxicated drinker "drops out" by not working, ignoring responsibilities, squandering money, and engaging in other harmful behaviors such as fighting or risky sex. This view is consistent with that portrayed traditionally in dictionary definitions, in literature, in art, and in plays or films such as Come Back Little Sheeba, Lost Weekend, and Leaving Las Vegas.

It is also consistent with the usage of physicians, psychologists, and other clinicians. As the editor of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol emphasized, binge describes an extended period of time (typically at least two days) during which time a person repeatedly becomes intoxicated and gives up his or her usual activities and obligations in order to become intoxicated. It is the combination of prolonged use and the giving up of usual activities that forms the core of the clinical definition of binge.1

A Swedish study, for example, defined a binge as the consumption of half a bottle of spirits or two bottles of wine on the same occasion.2 A study in Italy found that people considered consuming an average of eight drinks a day to be normal drinking -- clearly not bingeing.3

But in the United States, some researchers began defining bingeing as consuming five or more drinks on an occasion (an "occasion" can refer to an entire day and evening). They soon modified their new definition to by considering the consumption on four or more drinks by a woman on an occasion to be bingeing.5

Consider a woman who has two glasses of wine with her leisurely dinner and then sips two more drinks over the course of a four or five hour evening. In the view of most people, such a woman would be acting responsibly. Indeed her blood alcohol content would remain low. It's difficult to imagine that she would even be able to feel the effects of the alcohol. However, the new definition categorized her as a binger!

The effect of this new definition was to suddenly “create” widespread binge drinking on college campuses across the United States. That, in turn, created the perceived need to fund researchers to document, study, and make recommendations concerning this “new and dangerous epidemic.” Alcohol researchers and activists were suddenly in demand as highly-paid speakers, consultants, and investigators of this threat to our children and the future of the country.

Other researchers explained that it is counter-productive to brand as pathological the consumption of four or five drinks over the course of an evening of eating and socializing. It is clearly inappropriate to equate it with a binge.4

How useful is such an unrealistic definition? It is very useful if the intent is to inflate the extent of a social problem. And it would please members of the Prohibition Party and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (both of which still exist). But it is not very useful if the intent is to accurately describe reality to the average person.

It is highly unrealistic and inappropriate to apply a prohibitionist definition to describe drinking in the United States today. Perhaps we should define binge drinking as any intoxicated drinking that leads to certain harmful or destructive behaviors. Perhaps we should specify the period of time during which a person is intoxicated. Perhaps we could even require that a person be significantly intoxicated before being labeled a "binger."

Serious criticisms of the inadequacies of the new definition led to various revisions. For example, The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) now defines binge drinking as drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08.5 No conduct problems are necessary and the “binger” could easily be quietly enjoying an evening with friends.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which conducts the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, defines binge drinking for the purposes of its surveys as drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion on at least one day in the past 30 days.6 The length of an occasion is not defined and could be an entire day and evening. Indeed, college parties typically lasts at least seven hours.

Different researchers, organizations and agencies now define binge in different ways, but they are all far different from the medical and clinical definition as well as the implicit understanding generally held by the public. These unrealistic definitions share one thing in common: they are misleading at best.

The conclusion is clear: Be very skeptical the next time you hear or read a report about "binge" drinking. Were the people in question really bingeing? By any reasonable definition, most almost certainly were not.

The Extent Of “Binge” Drinking

While a continuing barrage of newspaper articles, TV shows, and reports by special interest groups claim that binge drinking among young people is a growing epidemic, the actual fact is quite to the contrary. So-called binge drinking among young people is clearly declining and it has been doing so for many years.

As seen in this graphic, "binge" drinking among high school seniors has declined from 41.2% to 22.1% between 1980 and 2013. That's a drop of almost one-half. Surveys of eighth and tenth graders began in 1991. Since that time, the proportion of eighth graders who “binge” has fallen about one-half, from 10.1% down to 5.1%. Among tenth graders it has fallen from 21.0% down to 13.7%.7

Similarly, the proportions of “binge” drinking college students and other young adults who are one to four years beyond high school have both dropped significantly since 1980.8

The proportion of adolescents in the U.S. who engaged in so-called binge drinking during the previous month fell by 30.3% between 2008 and 2013.9 The incidence of such drinking has been below the federal government’s Healthy People 2020 target since 2010.

The facts are clear. "Binge" drinking is down and alcohol abstinence is up among school and college students in the U.S. Yet the false impression persists that we’re suffering an epidemic of “bingeing.”

So What's The Harm?

This misperception is dangerous because when young people go to school or college falsely thinking that "everybody" is drinking and bingeing, they are more likely to drink and to "binge" in order to conform. Correcting this misperception is important because it can empower young people and break the vicious self-fulfilling prophesy that helps perpetuate collegiate alcohol abuse.

Individual students almost always believe that most others on campus drink more often and more heavily than they do and the disparity between the perceived and the actual behaviors tends to be quite large. By conducting surveys of actual student behavior and publicizing the results, the extent of heavy drinking can be quickly and significantly reduced.10

Too many college students still abuse alcohol. But those who exaggerate the problem and distort its magnitude are actually making the problem worse. If we are to further reduce alcohol abuse and the problems it causes, we have to publicize the actual facts and correct damaging misperceptions. Doing so will empower students to do what they as individuals generally want to do: drink less or not drink at all.

The challenge of correcting dangerous misperceptions about college student drinking is enormous. Many researchers, reporters, writers, bureaucrats, and others have a vested interest in inflating the extent of "binge" drinking. But scare tactics are actually counter-productive and it turns out that the most effective way to reduce alcohol abuse is simply to tell the truth and make sure that young people understand the facts.



  • 1. Schuckit, Marc A. The editor responds. The Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1998, 123-124.
  • 2. Hansagi, H., Romelsjo, A., Gerhardsson de Verdier, M., Andereasson, S., and Leifman, A. Alcohol consumption and stroke mortality: 20-year follow-up of 15,077 men and women. Stroke, 1995, 26(10), 1768-1773.
  • 3. Farchi, G., Fidanza, F., Mariotti, S., and Menotti, A. Alcohol and mortality in the Italian rural cohorts of the Seven Countries Study. International Journal of Epidemiology, 1995, 27(7), 74-81.
  • 4. Dimeff, Linda A., Kilmer, Jason, Baer, John S., and Marlatt, G. Alan. To the editor. Journal of the American Medical Association, 1998, 273(24), 1903-1904.
  • 5. NIAAA website http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking Accessed 28 January 2015.
  • 6. NIAAA website http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking Accessed 28 January 2015.
  • 7. Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Miech, R. A., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. Monitoring the Future National Results on Drug Use: 1975-2013: Overview, Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, 2014, Table 8, p. 68. 
  • 8. Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E. & Miech, R. A. Monitoring the Future National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975–2013: Volume 2, College Students and Adults Ages 19–55. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, 2014, Table 9-4, p. 396-397 (for college students) and Figure 9-14d, p. 420 (for those one to four years beyond high school).
  • 9. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Behavioral Health Barometer: United States, 2014. HHS Publication No. SMA–15–4895. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2015, p. 5.
  • 10. Turner, J., Perkins, H. W., & Bauerle, J. Declining negative consequences related to alcohol misuse among students exposed to a social norms marketing intervention on a college campus. Journal of American College Health, 2008, 57, 85-94; Moreira, M. T., Smith, L. A., & Foxcroft, D. Social norms interventions to reduce alcohol misuse in university or college students. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 3, 2009; Scribner, R. A., Theall, K. P., Mason, K., Simonsen, N., Schneider, S. K., Towvim, L. G., et al. Alcohol prevention on college campuses: The moderating effect of the alcohol environment on the effectiveness of social norms marketing campaigns, Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2011, 72, 232–239.

This site does not dispense medical, legal, or any other advice and none should be inferred.
For more fine print, read the disclaimer.