By Rebecca Goldin, Ph.D.
The media has raced to report on claims that binge drinking among women is on a dangerous upward trajectory. Yet the data suggest that rates of alcohol binging are relatively stable for women and are decreasing for men.
The trigger for the increased binging claim is a new book by recovering alcoholic Ann Dowsett Johnston, “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.” Her commentary last month in The Wall Street Journal—“The New Face of Risky Drinking is Female”— purported to show that binge drinking was increasing among young women. But—as an editor’s note in the Journal partly explained—Johnston had misreported the survey data, combining two separate studies to come up with a propulsive but erroneous claim.
And she illustrated her story of increased binging by describing a woman found dead in a frat house closet.
ABC’s Good Morning America, in a segment tied to the book, ABC’s Good Morning America reported that “binging is up among all age groups,” with a link to the CDC’s fact sheet on the problem. Unfortunately, nothing on the fact sheet actually supports this claim. That’s because the CDC’s data doesn’t show such a trend. Nor do the data from numerous surveys that track American drinking trends. Ironically, ABC News issued a correction last January—the last time there was a media surge in reports on women binge drinking—for making the very same mistaken conclusion about the CDC data.
If journalists don’t read the news put out by their own news organizations on the same topic, or read what they are linking to as evidence, what hope has the public of understanding the data behind that define the scope of any social problem?
Indeed, the data tell a story quite different from the headlines.
Binging is an ongoing and persistent problem that has seen modest reduction in the past ten years, including among women and girls. According to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavioral Survey (YRBS), in 2003, over 34 percent of female high school seniors reported binging in the previous month; this went down to 29.2 percent in 2005 and then 27 percent in 2011. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) also failed to find an increase in binging among women. NSDUH data show that the proportion of women aged 12-20 who admitted to binging dropped from 16.5 percent in 2003 to 14 percent in 2012.
Similarly, the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey found that among 12th grade women, 21.2 percent reported binging in the previous month in 2003; by 2011, the figure was 19.7 percent, with fluctuations of one to two percent each year. Thus, none of these major surveys suggest that binging is up among women.
College promotes a culture different than high school, yet the standard surveys do not indicate a surge in binging among college students either. NSDUH data from 2012 indicate that binging among college students has decreased in the past decade, from 44.4% in 2002 to 40 percent in 2012. Most of that decline is attributed to a decline in male binging. Female binging was significantly lower than male binging, but did not see the same decline that men did. Males still binge at much higher rates than women – almost 30 percent more.
The specific demographic of women in college saw a slight increase of unclear significance. According to Monitoring the Future, 33.1 percent of women said they had binged during the previous month in 2003. The percentage fluctuated by a couple percentage points each year, arriving at 34.5 percent in 2012. This increase is well within the range of the percentage changes reported year to year. In contrast, among women who were college age but didn’t attend college, there was a marked decrease in binging, from 33.1 percent in 2003 to 26.2 percent in 2012.
Alcohol abuse continues to affect both men and women; consistently more men than women. Rates of daily drinking among college, students, remain at about five percent for men and three percent for women, according to Monitoring the Future. Addressing the problem of underage and unhealthy drinking (either binging or over-consuming) is a worthwhile endeavor that universities across the country need to undertake. However, scare-mongering headlines suggesting that females are suffering worse than males or that the female drinking will invariably land them to rehab or to death in a closet are a misleading use of statistics.
Rebecca Goldin, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason University. She is currently the Director of Research at George Mason University’s Statistical Assessment Service.