Epidemiology of Alcohol Use and Alcohol Problems

Part 3. Race/Ethnicity and Heavy Drinking

Deviant Drinking among White Adolescents

Some of the clearest and most surprising patterns in the epidemiology of deviant drinking involve differences by race and ethnicity. Results from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) project have consistently shown that white high-school seniors considerably exceed seniors from most other race/ethnic groups on measures of alcohol use and heavy drinking. For example, this pattern is evident in the following two graphs from a recent MTF report by Johnston, O'Malley, Bachman, and Schulenberg (2012; click here).

The graph on the left shows the percentages of high school seniors from three groups—Non-Hispanic whites, Non-Hispanic blacks, and Hispanics—who had five or more drinks in a row within the past two weeks before the MTF survey. Although all three groups show a general decline in the prevalence of heavy drinking, white seniors are consistently more likely to drink heavily than are the other two groups over the course of this time series (two-year moving averages from 1975-76 to 2010-11). Black seniors are especially notable for their low prevalence of heavy drinking, which is approximately 15-20 percent lower than the rate for the other two groups over time.

Trends in two-week prevalence of five or more drinks in a row by race/ethnicity, 1975-2011 (two-year moving averages)
Binge Drinking by Race/Ethnicity
Trends in two-week prevalence of having been drunk by race/ethnicity, 1991-2011 (two-year moving averages)
Drunk in past 30 days by race/ethnicity

An item asking high-school seniors if they have been drunk within the past thirty days has been included on the MTF survey since the early 1990s (Johnston et al., 2012). As shown in the graph on the right above, this measure of deviant drinking also shows a consistent race/ethnic difference over time, in which the prevalence of being drunk for white seniors is approximately 10 percent higher than the rate for Hispanics and about 20 percent above the rate for black seniors. It is also worth noting that there has been a decrease in the prevalence of getting drunk for white and Hispanic seniors since the late 1990s.

The Race/Ethnic Crossover among Older Drinkers

There is some evidence that these differences between non-Hispanic whites and other race/ethnic groups become substantially smaller or even reverse at older ages. This "race/ethnic crossover" pattern is illustrated in the following graph, which is based on data from the 1996 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (as NSDUH was formerly known). Although there are minimal differences in the youngest age category below, whites have a much higher prevalence of heavy alcohol use than do Hispanic and African American respondents n the late adolescent and young adult ages of 18-25—a pattern very similar to the MTF data shown above for high-school seniors. Yet, the 26-34 age category shows that the prevalence estimates of heavy drinking three race/ethnic groups begin to converge. Finally, the rate of heavy drinking for whites falls below the rates for the other two groups in the oldest age category, 35 years and older. Although some studies do not find the "race/ethnic crossover" shown here, there is a good deal of evidence to indicate that heavy drinking and drug use may be a particular problem among older members of minority groups as a result of economic inequality and other sources of cumulative stress.

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