Although almost 1 in 3 adults in the US drink excessive amounts of alcohol, 90% of them are not alcohol dependent. This is according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

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Only 10% of excessive drinkers in the US meet the criteria for alcohol dependence, according to the CDC.

The study – co-authored by Dr. Robert Brewer, leader of the Alcohol Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – is published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

The CDC define excessive drinking as heavy drinking (eight or more drinks a week for women and 15 or more drinks a week for men), binge drinking (four or more drinks in a single occasion for women and five or more drinks in a single occasion for men) or any alcohol consumption by a pregnant women or any person under the age of 21.

According to the research team, there is widespread assumption that the majority of excessive drinkers are alcohol dependent – primarily because many alcoholics have a history of excessive drinking. But they note that few studies have assessed rates of alcohol dependence among excessive drinkers.

“Access to such information is important to inform the prioritization of strategies to prevent excessive drinking and treat alcohol dependence,” say the authors.

To reach their findings, the team analyzed data from 138,100 adults aged 18 years and older who responded to the 2009, 2010 or 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Within this survey, participants were asked about their current drinking habits, average alcohol consumption and binge drinking. They were also asked about any symptoms of alcohol dependence – such as strong cravings for alcohol, ongoing alcohol use regardless of prior drinking problems and the inability to control alcohol consumption.

The analysis revealed that nearly 1 in 3 adults were excessive drinkers, with the majority engaging in binge drinking. But of these, only 10.2% were alcohol dependent – the equivalent to 1 in 10 excessive drinkers.

“This study shows that, contrary to popular opinion, most people who drink too much are not alcohol dependent or alcoholics,” says Dr. Brewer.

The team notes that around 10% of binge drinkers are alcohol dependent, and that this rate increases with the frequency of binge drinking. “However, even among those who reported binge drinking 10 or more times in the past month, more than two thirds did not meet diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence, according to their responses to the survey,” say the authors.They add:

The findings of this study have important implications for planning and implementing public health interventions to reduce excessive drinking and binge drinking at the population level.

Although alcohol dependence is an important public health problem, these findings suggest that most excessive drinkers are unlikely to need addiction treatment.”

The researchers say there are many strategies that may reduce excessive alcohol consumption among the general population. They note, for example, that alcohol policies in some states – which involve raising alcohol taxes and reducing the availability of alcohol – have proved effective.

The team adds that screening and counseling for excessive alcohol use may also be effective but is underused in many states. “The uptake of alcohol screening and brief interventions might be improved by offering health care providers more training opportunities and by including coverage for alcohol screening and brief interventions in standard health insurance plans,” they say, concluding:

“A comprehensive approach to reducing excessive alcohol use that emphasizes the implementation of effective policy strategies and clinical preventive services might, therefore, be expected to have a greater impact on reducing excessive alcohol use and related harms than a more focused strategy that primarily relies on the implementation of addiction treatment services alone.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study claiming that, contrary to previous research, moderate alcohol consumption – defined as up to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men – only offers heart benefits for 15% of the population.