It is difficult to define heavy drinking. People have different abilities to process alcohol and can tolerate various amounts of alcohol in their system.
Therefore, the amount of consumption that begins to create problems for the drinker (problems identified employers, families and other people affected by the individual’s drinking) varies widely. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which conducts the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), defines heavy drinking as having five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of five or more days in the past 30 days There are many people whose families consider them to be problem or “heavy” drinkers who could not tolerate that amount of alcohol and who, in fact, might pass out before they could consume five drinks at one setting.
Also, high-risk drinking is different for men and women. According to SAMHSA, a woman who drinks more than three drinks a day for seven days straight in the past 30 days is at risk and is considered a heavy drinker.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, a person is regarded as an alcoholic when they say they are, i.e., when their drinking is causing problems in their family, on their job or with their social life and they seek help.
Experts agree that the concept of heavy drinking can be qualitative rather than quantitative. In a recent CNN interview, Dr. Arthur Klatsky said of heavy drinking, “[The definition is] imprecise and not quantitative. I try to avoid using terms like ‘heavy,’ ‘light’ and ‘moderate’ for that reason in my publications.” Still, the definitions offered by SAMHSA and others are useful and are based on studies that carefully quantify the physical effects on the human body even to the point of morbidity. How are these definitions useful? Almost every heavy drinker, when asked how many drinks is a sign of a heavy drinker, overestimates the number. In the CNN interview, people who exceeded the SAMHSA definition regularly said they would have to have 15 to 30 drinks a week to be considered a heavy drinker. They were surprised by the idea that more than five drinks on each occasion of drinking over a five day period would put them in the category of a heavy drinker. If they are, in fact, drinking “heavily,” the definitions may motivate them to be more receptive to taking a look at their drinking habits. This is particularly the case if they are getting less than positive feedback from employers, friends, and family.
Another reason the definitions are useful is that the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that one in four people who fit the definition of heavy drinker already have an alcohol abuse problem, based on the definition that they are having problems at work, at home and socially.
While the definitions are not precise, a very helpful brochure from the NIAAA titled Beyond Hangovers provides an outline of “What Is Heavy Drinking” along with consequences outlined for engaging in heavy drinking.
Beyond Hangovers (n.d.). Retrieved March, 2017.
Christensen, J., Are you a heavy drinker? You’d be surprised. CNN. Retrieved March, 2017.
Drinking Levels Defined. (n.d.). Retrieved March, 2017.