Study brings problem drinkers from shadows

'Neglected majority,' who aren't alcoholic, can benefit from mass mailings of educational nature

Health & Fitness

August 25, 2002|By Victor Greto | By Victor Greto,Special to the Sun

Your name is (fill in the blank), and you are not an alcoholic. But you may be a problem drinker and still in need of help.

Experts say problem drinkers have become the "neglected majority" of alcohol abusers. Because of their sheer numbers, they're at the heart of the country's alcohol-related social and economic troubles, from drinking while driving to lost productivity at work.

"For every alcoholic, there are four problem drinkers," says Mark Sobell, a professor at the center for psychological studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He estimates there are 12 million problem drinkers in the United States.

Alcoholism, considered a disease by the American Medical Association, occurs when one becomes physically dependent upon alcohol.

Problem or excessive drinkers average 12 or more drinks per week or binge at least five times a year. Bingeing is defined as consuming five or more drinks at a time.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, each year alcohol abuse in the United States is responsible for $134 billion in lost productivity, including $87 billion in losses from alcohol-related illness, $36 billion in premature death and $10 billion in crime.

Alcohol-related vehicle crashes cost the country more than $15 billion a year, while the criminal justice system spends more than $6 billion on alcohol-related crime.

Those statistics might be sharply reduced if mass mailings of educational materials were sent to problem drinkers, says Sobell.

He and his wife, Linda, also a Nova Southeastern University psychology professor, conducted a yearlong study of 825 problem drinkers who wanted to cut back. The Sobells discovered that participants who received generic educational pamphlets cut down their weekly intake on average by 15 percent to 33 percent.

"A lot of people have the wherewithal to change," says Mark Sobell, who also co-directs a clinic that helps people who want to stop or moderate their drinking.

Often, it's the "alcoholic" label that scares off many problem drinkers who want to get help, says Mark Kern, of Moderation Management, a New York-based organization founded in 1993 to help problem drinkers.

"Some people really do need to stop, but a lot of people are not getting help that could reduce the amount [of alcohol they drink] because we all give them the either / or message," Kern says. "And that's naive."

Problem drinkers don't fit the stereotype of the traditional alcoholic, Sobell explains.

"Of people who are problem drinkers, 80 percent are employed, most still have relationships with significant others, many will be married," he says. "Sometimes it goes out of control, and many times it doesn't."

"The primary factor is self-motivation," says Teresa Herzog Mourad, coordinator of DrinkWise, an organization created to assist problem drinkers who want help. "Those who come to us on their own," she adds, "listen sooner and act sooner."

Herzog Mourad says she once got a call from an "older, educated professional with a degree, but he had no idea what a drink was."

The man claimed he drank three whiskeys a day. But after Herzog Mourad told him what was considered a "drink" -- 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor -- he realized he was downing 15 drinks of whiskey daily.

Both Kern and Herzog Mourad say they were excited at the Sobells' findings and the idea of mailing educational materials to problem drinkers.

One of the study's surprising findings, Sobell says, was that there was no meaningful difference in the drinking-reduction results between those who just read generic materials and those who were given personalized information.

"Just filling out the assessment material may have been enough for someone to say, 'Hmmm, now that I look at this, I should cut it down,' " Sobell says.

Victor Greto is a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Is this you?

How Do You Know if You Drink Too Much? According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (Www.Niaaa. Nih.Gov), if You Answer Yes to Any of the Following Questions, You May Have a Drinking Problem:

* Do you drink alone when you feel angry or sad?

* Does your drinking ever make you late for work?

* Does your drinking worry your family?

* Do you ever drink after telling yourself you won't?

* Do you ever forget what you did while you were drinking?

* Do you get headaches or have a hangover after you have been drinking?

Resources for help

Moderation Management:; 212-871-0974

DrinkWise: / drinkwise; 800-222-5145

Mark and Linda Sobell Guided Self-Change Clinic: /(tilde)gsc / ; 954-262-5968

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