Share story

WASHINGTON — America’s binge drinkers are fueling an average of six alcohol-poisoning deaths per day and the rates are highest among non-Hispanic white, middle-aged men, according to a new government report.

Women who have four or more drinks on an occasion and men who have five or more are considered binge drinkers by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But nearly every week, more than 38 million people report consuming an average of eight drinks during one episode, or binge, the CDC found.

That kind of heavy drinking over a short period, such as two to three hours, can prove fatal.

When large amounts of alcohol are consumed in a short period of time, blood-alcohol levels rise sharply, overwhelming the body’s ability to respond. Excessive alcohol intake can shut down parts of the brain that control breathing, body temperature and heart rate.

“If we could eliminate binge drinking, we would dramatically reduce the risk of alcohol poisoning,” said Bob Brewer, who heads the alcohol program of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the CDC.

The CDC report is the first in a decade to tally alcohol poisonings for the entire U.S. population. Most previous analyses looked at certain groups, in particular young people.

“Most previous studies have looked at college kids and young people, but the problem is bigger than that,” Brewer said. “It was surprising that the number of deaths was so concentrated among middle-age adults.”

Most of the estimated 1.5 billion binge-drinking episodes each year involve Americans 26 and older, Brewer said. But CDC researchers were surprised to find that people ages 35 to 64 accounted for three-fourths of America’s roughly 2,200 alcohol-poisoning deaths each year from 2010 to 2012.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, there’s a lot of binge drinking that’s going on by people who are post-college age,” Brewer said Tuesday.

While binge drinking with hard liquor is more common among younger adults, middle-aged people typically binge on beer.

The CDC analysis, which studied alcohol-poisoning deaths among those 15 and older, found that alcoholism was a factor in 30 percent of the deaths. Almost 70 percent of the deaths from 2010 to 2012 occurred among non-Hispanic whites. American Indians and Alaska Natives, however, had the highest death rates from alcohol.

With 46.5 deaths per 1 million residents, Alaska had the nation’s highest death rate from alcohol poisoning, followed by New Mexico, Rhode Island and Arizona. Alabama had the lowest rate, at 5.3 deaths per million residents, followed by Texas, Illinois and Virginia. Washington state had 8.1 deaths per million residents.

States with the highest death rates were located mostly in the Great Plains and western United States but also included two New England states, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

“Alcohol-poisoning deaths are a heartbreaking reminder of the dangers of excessive alcohol use, which is a leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.,” said CDC Principal Deputy Director Ileana Arias. “We need to implement effective programs and policies to prevent binge drinking and the many health and social harms that are related to it, including deaths from alcohol poisoning.”