Alcoholic Beverage Consumption in the U.S.: Patterns and Trends

Alcohol consumption in the United States has declined over time. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that the per capita consumption of alcohol by Americans age 14 and older has dropped from 2.75 gallons in 1980 to 2.31 in 2007 (the latest date for which statistics are available). 1

Race and Ethnicity

Alcohol consumption also varies by race and ethnicity. The four major minorities in the US are African Americans; Hispanics; Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs); and American Indians/Alaska Natives (AI/ANs). Both current drinking (defined as consumption of 12 or more drinks in the past year) and heavy drinking are most prevalent among AI/ANs and Native Hawaiians and lowest among AAPIs. 3

It’s been observed 4 that

Heterogeneity in drinking patterns is also found among different nationalities within specific ethnic groups. 5 Blacks whose ancestry is Caribbean consume less alcohol compared with Blacks in general. Hispanic Americans of Central American, South American, or Caribbean ancestry consume less alcohol than Hispanics in general (including Hispanics of Mexican or Mexican American ancestries). Among Asians, Japanese Americans consume more alcohol than Asian Americans of other national origins. 6 Heterogeneity in drinking patterns also varies by place of birth. For example, Asians and Pacific Islanders born in the United States have lower alcohol abstention rates than those born elsewhere. 7

Differences in alcohol consumption are also found among Native Americans. Those living on reservations drink less frequently than Native Americans living in off–reservation towns, but reservation dwellers may engage in binge drinking (drinking five or more drinks per day) more frequently and consume more alcohol per occasion when they do drink. 8

Among adolescent minorities studied nationwide, African Americans show the lowest prevalence of lifetime, annual, monthly, daily, and heavy drinking, as well as the lowest frequency of being drunk. Hispanic adolescents have the highest annual prevalence of heavy drinking, followed by Whites. 9

Among all age and ethnic groups, men are more likely to drink than are women, and to consume large quantities in a single sitting. 10 This is a pattern found throughout the world. 11

Proportion Abstainers in Percent 12
White African American Hispanic
Men 26 36 35
Women 39 55 57

Status and Role

Married couples with adult children and couples with no children spend about 30% more than the national household average. Sixty-one percent of all money spent on alcoholic beverages was for alcohol consumed in the home. 13

Abstention in the US is inversely associated with social status. The lower the social class, the higher the abstention. 14

Similarly, the more educated people are in the US, the more likely they are to drink. 15


Surveys of different age groups in the community suggest that the elderly, generally defined as persons older than 65, consume less alcohol than younger persons. 16

Federal surveys demonstrate a decline in alcohol consumption by young persons over a period of decades. For example, the proportion people age 12 through 17 who have consumed any alcohol during the previous month has dropped from 50% in 1979 to 14.7% in 2009, according to the federal government's annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 17

The proportion of high school seniors who have ever consumed alcohol is also declining. 18

Graph: High school seniors who have ever consumed alcohol

The proportion of high school seniors who have consumed alcohol within previous year is down. 19

Graph: High school seniors who have consumed alcohol within the previous year

The proportion of high school seniors who have consumed alcohol within previous 30 days is down. 20

Graph: High school seniors who have consumed alcohol within the previous 30 days

The proportion of high school seniors who have recently consumed alcohol daily is down. 21

Graph: High school seniors who have recently consumed alcohol daily

The proportion of high school seniors who have consumed 5 or more drinks on an occasion within previous two weeks is down. 22

Graph: High school seniors who have consumed 5 or more drinks on an occasion within the previous 2 weeks

The proportion of college freshmen who drink alcohol continues to drop. Between 2006 and 1010, the proportion of drinkers dropped from 62% down to 38%. That is a new historic low. 23

About half (49%) of American college students don’t drink alcohol on a regular basis, 31% consume five or fewer drinks per week, and only 12% (a little over one in ten) consume ten or more drinks per week. 24 The average (median) number of drinks consumed by college students is 1.5 per week, according to the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study’s survey of 17,592 students at 140 colleges and universities across the United States. 25 The continuing Harvard Studies have documented an increase in the proportion of college student abstainers and an decrease in the average number of drinks consumed by those who do drink. 26

About two of every three (65.9%) American undergraduates is age 21 or older and seven of every ten (70.5%) US college and university students (undergraduate and graduate) are age 21 or older, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. 27

International Comparisons

The ten countries with the highest per capita consumption of alcohol are listed below.

Highest Per Capita Consumption
Rank Country
1 Luxembourg
2 Ireland
3 France
4 Hungary
5 Denmark
6 Czech Republic
7 Spain
8 Portugal
9 Austria
10 Switzerland

Per capita alcohol consumption in the US has dropped 23% since 1990 and it ranks 22 on the list.28

Given this low international ranking, its not surprising that abstention is much more common in the US than in any other Western country. The following graph indicates the proportion of abstainers in a 29

Drinking attitudes and behaviors in the United States reflect its strong temperance past. National Prohibition of alcohol existed for nearly 14 years between early 1902 and late 1933. Upon repeal of Prohibition, however, a large number of states continued their own state prohibition and others permitted “local option” regarding prohibition. There are still hundreds of “dry” counties and municipalities in which the sale of alcoholic beverages is prohibited. There are also millions of Americans who currently support the concept of prohibition. 30


References and Readings

Filed Under: Economics

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