At least 38 million adults in the US drink too much, and most are not alcoholics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a push to increase use of alcohol screening and counseling by doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

Only 1 in 6 Americans talk to their health professional about their drinking habits, says the federal agency.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has previously reported that excessive alcohol consumption causes premature death (an average of 79,000 deaths annually in the US) and costs the economy about $224 billion a year.

According to the CDC, drinking too much includes:

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According to the CDC, at least 38 million US adults drink too much, and only 1 in 6 Americans talk to health professionals regarding their drinking habits.
  • Binge drinking: consuming 5 or more drinks (men), or 4 or more drinks (women), on one occasion lasting 2 to 3 hours.
  • High weekly use: 15 or more drinks on average (men), or 8 or more drinks on average (women), per week.
  • Any alcohol use by pregnant women.
  • Any alcohol use by those under 21.

A drink is defined as 5 ounces (142 ml) of wine, 12 ounces (341 ml) of beer, or 1.5 ounces (43 ml) of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor.

On its new Alcohol Screening and Counseling web page the CDC notes:

“Drinking too much is dangerous and can lead to heart disease, breast cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, sudden infant death syndrome, motor-vehicle crashes, and violence.”

Recent research also suggests that binge drinking raises risk for type 2 diabetes by directly causing insulin resistance.

The CDC says alcohol screening and brief counseling has been proven to work and doctors, nurses and other health professionals should screen all adult patients, including pregnant women, and counsel those who drink too much.

The agency points out that alcohol screening and brief counseling can reduce binge drinking by lowering the amount heavy drinkers consume on one occasion by 25%.

In terms of improving health and saving money, the CDC compares alcohol screening and brief counseling to blood pressure screening, flu vaccination, and screening for breast cancer and cholesterol.

Talking with a patient about their drinking is the first step a health professional can take in alcohol screening and brief counseling, which includes:

  • Asking a full set of questions to establish how much and how often the patient drinks.
  • Counseling them about the health risks of drinking too much – including in pregnancy.
  • Referring only those few patients who need specialized treatment for alcohol dependence.

The Affordable Care Act requires new health insurance to cover this service without a co-payment, says the CDC.

Although public health experts recommend alcohol screening and counseling, few people report talking to their doctor, nurse or health professional about drinking.

Only 1 in 6 adults in the US has discussed it with their health professional, and only 1 in 4 binge drinkers has talked about it. Even among those who binge drink 10 times or more a month, only a third has talked about the problem with their health professional.