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

Alcoholic beverage consumption in the U.S. has declined over time. For example, the per capita consumption of alcohol by Americans age 14 and older has been declining. In fact, it dropped from 2.76 gallons over a recent 33 year period.1

Race and Ethnicity

Alcoholic beverage consumption also varies by race and ethnicity. There are four major such minorities in the US. That is, African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), and Native Americans/Alaska Natives (AI/ANs). Both current drinking  and heavy drinking are most prevalent among AI/ANs and Native Hawaiians and lowest among AAPIs.3 (Current drinking is defined as having 12 or more drinks in the past year.)

One observer4 wrote that “Heterogeneity in drinking patterns is also found among different nationalities within specific ethnic groups.”5 Blacks whose ancestry is in the  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. That is, 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 alcoholic beverage consumption are also found among Native Americans. Those living on reservations drink less frequently than Native Americans living in off–reservation towns. However, reservation dwellers may drink five or more drinks per day more often. And they may consume more alcohol per occasion when they do drink.8

African Americans show the lowest prevalence of lifetime, annual, monthly, daily, and heavy drinking. They also have the lowest frequency of being drunk. Hispanic adolescents have the highest annual prevalence of heavy drinking, followed by Whites.9

Gender

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

Proportion Abstainers in Percent12
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 for alcohol. 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

Proportion of Abstainers by Class and Gender

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

Proportion of U.S. Pop by Education who drank alcohol within a previous month

Age

Surveys show that those older than 65 consume less alcohol than younger persons.16

Federal surveys demonstrate a decline in alcoholic beverage 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 greatl. That’s 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

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

Figure 2

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

Figure 3

 

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

Figure 4

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

alcoholic beverage consumption

College Students

The proportion of college freshmen who drink alcohol continues to drop. It’s now at a 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,\. That’s according to the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study’s survey of 17,592 students at 140 colleges and universities.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. That’s 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 alcoholic beverage consumption in the US continues to drop. It ranks 22 on the list.28

The US has a low low international ranking on drinking. Thus, it’s not surprising that abstention is much more common in the US than in any other Western country.29

Proportion of Abstainers by Western Country

Temperance Sentiment in US

Drinking attitudes and behaviors in the United States reflect its strong temperance past. National Prohibition of alcohol existed for nearly 14 years. However, after Repeal, a large number of states continued their own state prohibition. Many others permitted “local option” permitting prohibition. There are still hundreds of “dry” counties and dry municipalities in which the sale of alcoholic beverages is prohibited. In fact, nearly one in five US adults today favors prohibition!30

References

  • 1. Haughwout, S., et al. Apparent Per Capita Alcohol Consumption. Washington: NIAAA, 2015.
  • 2. Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs. Alcohol Consumption. OECD Health Data. Paris: The Directorate, 2019.
  • 3. NIAAA. Alcohol Alert: Alcohol and Minorities. 2002. 
  • 4. Galvan, F. and Caetano, R. Alcohol use.  NIAAA, Dec. 2013.
  • 5. Dawson, D. Beyond Black, White and Hispanic. J Sub Abuse, 1998, 10, 321–339.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Makimoto, K. Drinking patterns. Alco Health & Res World, 1998, 22, 270–275.
  • 8. May, P., and Gossage, J. The epidemiology of alcohol consumption. Drug Alco Depend, 2001, 63, S100.
  • 9. NIAAA. Alcohol Alert: Alcohol and Minorities No. 55 January 2002.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Heath, D. (Ed.) Handbook of Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.
  • 12. Galvan, F. and Caetano, R. (2013).
  • 13. Directorate for Employment. (201).
  • 14. Holder, H.  Alcohol and the Community. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U Press, 1998.
  • 15. Wright, J. W. (Ed.) The New York Times 2000 Almanac. New York: Penguin, 1999, p. 398.
  • 16. NIAAA. Alcohol Alert. No. 40 April 1998.
  • 17. SAMHSA. Results from the 2009 National Survey. Rockville, MD: SAMHSA, 2010.
  • 18. Johnston, L. et al. Monitoring the Future. Ann Arbor: U Mich, 2011, p. 52.
  • 19. _____. p. 58.
  • 20. _____, p. 62.
  • 21. _____. p. 63.
  • 22. _____ p. 64.
  • 23.Weise, E. Poll.s: young non-drinkers up in down economy. USA Today, Feb 7, 2011.
  • 24. Grossman, J. Special Campus Dole Poll. Dole Nutrition News, Nov 8, 2014.
  • 25. Wechsler, H. College alcohol use. J Am Coll Health, 1999, 47, 247-252.
  • 26. Wechsler, H. et al. Underage college students’ drinking behavior. J Am Coll Health, 2012, 50(5), 223-236.
  • 27. NCES, personal com.
  • 28. Directorate … (2019).
  • 29. ICAP. Who are the Abstainers? Washington: ICAP, June 2000, pp. 8-9.
  • 30. Hanson, D. Preventing Alcohol Abuse. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.

Filed Under: Economics