Geography of Alcohol and Drinking (Discover the Unexpected)

The geography of alcohol is a fascinating subject. The spatial arrangement of activities can provide important insights. It can point out the unexpected. And provide guidance for public alcohol policy.

I. Geography of Alcohol Related Traffic Crashes.


I.   Geography of Alcohol Related Traffic Crashes

II.  Geography of “Excessive” Drinking

III. Critique of “Excessive” Definition

IV.  Resources on Geography of Alcohol

Texas has the most alcohol-related traffic crashes in the U.S. Of course it has more drivers than most other states. But California has a larger population driving more miles than any other state.

So California should have the most alcohol-related crashes. But there’s one very important difference between the two states. And it’s this. Texas has a large number of dry or prohibition counties. California has none.

Dry counties

Dry counties in Texas have more alcohol-related traffic crashes than wet ones. Completely dry counties have over three and one-half times the number per capita than completely wet counties.

In Kentucky, researchers studied about 39,000 alcohol-related traffic crashes. A much higher proportion of residents in dry counties have such accidents.

Other researchers analyzed all counties in Arkansas. They report that dry counties have higher alcohol-related fatalities than wet counties. This is true throughout the state.

Probable Reason

geography of alcoholIt appears that those in dry counties have to drive farther from their homes to drink alcohol. Thus they increase their impaired driving exposure.

A newspaper described the situation. It reported that when an area is dry, it means driving across the county line. Sometimes it takes crossing several county lines to reach an oasis.

Researchers have also noted the phenomenon and its results. One pointed out that those in wet counties have shorter to drive between home and a place serving alcohol. Others wrote that those in dry counties have farther to drive while impaired. This increases their chances of crashing.

II. Geography of “Excessive” Drinking

A study reported in USAToday lists U.S. states by “excessive alcohol consumption.”  (See below for critique of its misleading definition of supposedly excessive drinking.)

Dr. Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health has a sharp eye. He noticed something curious in the USAToday list. It seemed that “excessive” drinking was higher in northern states. So he analyzed the data.

He plotted the proportion of a state’s population drinking excessively and its average latitude. (The higher the latitude, the more northerly the state.) In the graph, the best-fit line is black. The confidence interval is red.

geography of alcohol

So, the farther north the state, the more likely its residents are to drink “excessively.”

Dr. Berezow noted that Hawaii is clearly an outlier. It’s farthest south with very high alcohol consumption. On the other hand, Alaska is exactly where expected. But he thought it might have too much influence on the best-fit line location. So he removed those two states and re-analyzed the data.

geography of alcohol

The new analysis showes an even stronger relationship. The correlation increased from 0.46 to 0.56. (A correlation of 0.00 would show no relationship. And one of 1.00 would be a perfect relationship.)

III. Critique of “Excessive Alcohol Alcohol Consumption” Definition

The study reported in USAToday defines “excessive” as either of the following.

A. So-called binge drinking. That is, “four or more drinks in a single occasion for women and five or more for men.”


B. Heavy drinking. That is “at least eight drinks per week for women and 15 for men.”)

However, there are serious problems with each of these definitions.

Binge Drinking

geography of drinkingFirst, let’s look at binge drinking. Doctors and other clinicians define a binge as engaging in self-destructive drinking lasting at least two days. During the binge, the drinker “drops out” of usual activities. The binger ignores responsibilities such as going to work.

The essentials of a binge are prolonged intoxication and neglect of usual activities.  Without those, it’s not a binge.

Here’s an example. A woman might have a drink before dinner at 6:00 and then one with dinner at 7:00. Another at 8:30 with a final drink at 10:00.

A common guideline for responsible drinking is no more than one drink per hour. This guards against intoxication. Yet the study would define this responsible woman as a binge drinker!

Heavy Drinking

geography of alcoholSecond, consider the study’s “heavy drinking.” The U.S. government recommends that women drink no more than seven drinks per week. For men, it’s 14 drinks per week. On the other hand, many countries recommend higher levels.

Defining heavy drinking as consuming one additional drink per week seems arbitrary and hard to justify. Few people would consider that to be heavy drinking.

So the definitions of “bingeing” and heavy drinking seem far from being excessive consumption. Unless one is a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) or other temperance group. (The WCTU and other temperance organizations are still active.)

IV. Resources on Geography of Alcohol and Drinking

Bell, D. and Valentine, G. Consuming Geographies. London: Routledge, 1997.

Bromley, R. and Nelson, A. Alcohol-related crime and disorder across urban space and time. Geoforum, 2002, 33, 239-254. (article online)

Florida, R. The Geography of American Binge Drinking. (webpage)

From Genes to Geography: The Cutting Edge of Alcohol Research. (webpage)

Geography of Beer. Regions, Environment, and Societies. NY: Springer, 2016.

Gruenewald, P. et al. Evaluating the Alcohol Environment. Community Geography and Alcohol Problems. (article online)

Hoalst-Pullen, N. et al. National Geographic Atlas of Beer. Washington: Nat Geo, 2017.

Hubbard, P.  The geographies of  “going out.” In Davidson, J., Bondi, L. and Smith, M., eds, Emotional Geographies, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005, 117-134.

Ingraham, C. The Geography of Heavy Drinking, Mapped. (webpage)

Jacobs, F. Distilled Geography: Europe’s Alcohol Belts. (webpage)

Jayne, M. et al. Geographies of alcohol, drinking and drunkenness. Prog Human Geo.  (abstract online)

Lipton, R., and Gruenewald, P. The spatial dynamics of violence and alcohol outlets. J Stud Alcohol. 2002, 63(2), 187-195. (abstract online)

Millar, J. Beer Fronts and Crime Waves: A GIS Analysis of Weather, Alcohol, and Violence. S Ill U, Thesis, 2008.

Moreno, C. and Wilton, R. Using Space. Critical Geographies of Drugs and Alcohol. London: Routledge, 2014.

Shelton, N. and Savell, E. The geography of binge drinking. Health & Place, 2011, 17(3), 782-792. (abstract online)

Smith, C. and Hanham, R. Alcohol Abuse: Geographical Perspectives. Washington: Assn Am Geo,1982.

Sommers, B. The Geography of Wine. NY: Plume, 2008.

Thomas, Y., et al. Geography and Drug Addiction. London: Springer, 2008.

Valentine, G. et al. Drinking Places: Social Geographies of Consumption. York, UK: Rowntree Foundation, 2007 .