Does your doctor nag you about your drinking? The federal government wishes he would.
Last week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted with alarm that most Americans say they have never discussed alcohol consumption with a health professional. Physicians' reluctance to broach the subject is especially troubling, the CDC said, because "at least 38 million adults in the U.S. drink too much."
Most news outlets reported the latter claim as a fact, failing to notice the value judgments embedded in it. Contrary to what the CDC wants you to believe, the question of what it means to drink too much is a matter of moral and medical dispute.
According to the CDC, "problem drinkers" consist mainly of "binge drinkers," which does not mean what you might think: people who spend days in a drunken stupor, devoting themselves to intoxication in a way that seriously disrupts their lives. No, according to the CDC, a man is a binge drinker if at any point in the past month he has consumed five or more drinks "on an occasion"; for a woman, the cutoff is four drinks.
This definition is based on the amounts typically needed to reach a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent, which corresponds to the legal per se standard for driving while intoxicated (DWI). What if you do not plan to drive? It does not matter. The CDC has decreed that no one should ever drink this much, no matter the circumstances.
Note that the CDC's definition of a binge is determined legally rather than scientifically. When the DWI standard was 0.10 percent, many of today's binge drinkers would not have qualified as such. And if Congress lowers the cutoff to 0.05 percent, the number of binge drinkers will shoot up overnight.
The government's notion of a binge encompasses patterns of consumption that do not cause measurable harm to anything except the CDC's sensibilities. If a man at a dinner party drinks a cocktail before the meal, a few glasses of wine during it and a little bourbon afterward, he is drinking too much, according to the CDC, even if he takes a cab home.
Even if you never binge in this manner, that does not necessarily mean your drinking meets with the government's approval. The CDC also worries about men who have more than 14 drinks per week and women who have more than seven.
If you are a woman, don't think you can get a pass by sticking to one drink every day but Saturday, when you have two. That puts you over the government's limit and makes you part of the problem.
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