Booze Math: How Much Do Alcoholics Drink?

Experts say 80% of all alcohol sales go to people with drinking problems. The mathematics of that are staggering.

Reihan Salam points me to a July LAT op-ed from Mark Kleiman persuasively arguing that California’s Prop 19, which would legalize marijuana, might be a good idea but is in violation of both Federal and international law.    Kleiman argues that legalization should be done, instead, through the Dutch method which allows “front door” sales to customers but still criminalizes “back door” mass production or, better yet, simply allow people to grow their own for personal use.

While that’s all interesting, this is what jumped out at me:

The alcohol industry, for example, gets 80% of its income from people with drinking problems.

That’s a shocking statistic. Kleiman is a legitimate expert on the subject (as a scholar, not an abuser, I should add!) and I take as a given that this is therefore the best estimate available.   But it seems hard to swallow.

According to the CDC, some 61.5% of Americans are current drinkers and 14.6% are former drinkers, and only 23.9% are lifetime abstainers. These figures have varied very slightly since 1997.  Furthermore, the “current drinker” levels are actually substantially higher for those under 54, with a huge dropoff after age 75.   So, most of us drink alcohol.

Then again, apparently only 50% are “current regular drinkers,” those who claim to have had “at least 12 drinks in the past year.”  Another 14% are “current infrequent drinkers,” having had 1-11 drinks in the past year.  (Yes, there’s a small discrepancy in the totals.  We may be looking at different years.  All these are CDC data.)

I’m not finding reliable data on the rate of alcohol abuse.  That’s not shocking.  Advocacy groups have a strong incentive to over-dramatize the problem and government survey data will be skewed the other way, as many won’t admit to problem drinking.  And there’s no hard and fast definition.   But I’ve seen a 4% figure a couple of times on reputable sites, so let’s go with that as a reasonable guestimate.

To get to mere parity,  the 4% who are abusive drinkers would have to buy 15.375 times as much booze per capita as the 61.5% who are drinkers.  More, actually, since the abusers are part of the larger group.   To get to 80-20, they’d have to buy, what, 61 times as much?  And that’s assigning all “current drinkers” the same amount.   But only 50% are drinking enough to even bother making a trip to the liquor store!

Further, one would imagine that those who drink for the primary purpose of getting drunk would go for rail quality booze, right?  The Seagrams “bumpy” gin or off-brand vodka, whiskey, and rum — that sort of thing?   You wouldn’t think you’d spring for 18-year-old single malts if your intent is to get so hammered you don’t remember what you drank.   Decent booze is twice as expensive as the rotgut and the top shelf stuff can be ten times more costly without even going for the exotic bottles.

So, even at twice the price, that means abusive drinkers are consuming 120 times the volume of alcohol as normal drinkers?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    It’s balls Jim as you demonstrate. But then Salam has a penchant for promoting crazy numbers.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Although, again, these are Mark Kleiman’s numbers. He’s a left-leaning UCLA public policy professor of substantial renown. And this was published in the LA Times op-ed pages, so presumably vetted by a fact checker.

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    “so presumably vetted by a fact checker”

    I think Zell fired the fact checkers. Btw I don’t see the Tanqueray or Glenmorangie there Jim.

  4. John Hannaford says:

    Did Kleinman offer the percentage of abusive drinkers that he used for the estimate? Most of my circle qualifies as alcoholic by the standard of “five or more drinks at one sitting at least once in the past year” for binge drinking that my physician quoted to me. The anniversary dinner’s cocktail, wine and after dinner drinks, could easily satisfy that criteria. If Kleinmann’s percentage was based on that, he could be using a rate ten times the one you did. If we are part of his abusers group, we would also affect the cost side of the calculation, as “bumpy” gin doesn’t cut it with the missus when she throws on her best kit.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Most of my circle qualifies as alcoholic by the standard of “five or more drinks at one sitting at least once in the past year” for binge drinking that my physician quoted to me. The anniversary dinner’s cocktail, wine and after dinner drinks, could easily satisfy that criteria.

    Yeah, I call that “Saturday.” Although, come to think of it, I seldom drink five in one sitting. Over the course of the afternoon/evening, though, it’s not unusual at all.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    I seldom do as well, I usually have to hit the head after one or two.

  7. jim says:

    Apparently you’ve met my late uncle? started with beer in the morning moved to cheap scotch about noon the the good stuff at night. You could’ve made hockey pucks from his liver when he died

  8. John Hannaford says:

    You have to love the fine print. I guess we’re not abusers after all. Whew!

  9. Steve Plunk says:

    Mixing booze and math? Dr. Joyner you are brave.

    I gave up om the “experts” definition of alcoholic years ago. But I’ve also given up on most “expert” definitions. They tend to be devised to serve the very same “experts” more than the public.

  10. john personna says:

    Someone gave me “Bruno,” a detective story set in France, were people go off for their pettite blancs in the morning. Of course, maybe if they stayed for canq pettite blancs that would be a bit much. Personally 5 would be a big day, and would probably include a nap in the middle before going on to the next party.

    The strange thing to me, as a Californa resident, is how few direct attacks there have been on pot legalization. That is, we don’t hear “we can’t have all these pot smokers …” This one comes close with reference to “multiple-joints-per-day zonkers”, but no real suggestion (medical or use studies) of how likely that is.

    I do remember a film about Ghana where pot grows as weeds, and an interview with a paranoid guy who thought the CIA was after him. I’m sure at some point, with a lot of free pot, people flip out … but that’s not the way the media messages or campiagn messages are breaking out.

  11. 11B40 says:


    I’ve heard that 95%+ of current regular cigarette smokers (those smoking more than one cigarette per month) have nicotine addiction problems. Actually, I heard it because I was talking out loud to myself.

    I think that 12 drinks PER YEAR datum should be a bit of a giveaway to those still capable of breathing and thinking at the same time. One drink a month makes one a “current regular drinker”? (For the remaining Catholics out there that would amount to two drinks during Lent.) But not to worry, next year, it’ll be lowered to 10 drinks per year to protect the children of “previously current regular drinkers”.

    12 drinks per year would be a whole bottle of liquor every year. Now that’s a party I wouldn’t want miss. Give me a drink.

    Your tax dollars at work.

  12. ratufa says:


    I think you are misinterpreting the data and thus your booze math is incorrect.

    The percentage of drinkers is relative to the population of adult Americans. The 4% figure is in terms of all Americans . 75% of Americans are 18+. If 60% of them drink, 45% of all Americans are drinkers. So, around 9% of the drinkers, or about a 10-1 ratio of non-problem drinkers to problem drinkers.

    Two other things make the numbers a bit suspect: One is that the 4% number is on the very low-end of the estimates for alcohol abuse (and, in some stuff I’ve read, just refers to the number of alcoholics, not those with less severe abuse issues). 7 or 8% is another popular figure for the prevalence of people who have “drinking problems”, and that would make the revenue ratio more plausible.

    The other thing left out in some of these figures is alcohol consumed by underage drinkers, which has been estimated to be around 11% of all alcohol consumed in the US:

    Even if one doesn’t think that alcohol consumption by minors is, by definition, “problem drinking”, a large percentage of that consumption is due to binge drinking.

  13. anjin-san says:

    Is your drinking causing problems in your life?
    Have you ever wondered if you have a drinking problem?

    If you answer yes to one of these, you may well have a problem. If you answer yes to both, you almost certainly do.

  14. Quint says:

    Even if your math and assumptions are all correct, I don’t really find it shocking.

    If a “regular drinker” is one drink a month, could a “heavy drinker” drink 120 drinks in a month?

    Could a “heavy drinker” drink 4 drinks a a day? That doesn’t even seem like a stretch.

    As to pot legalization, I don’t think it would change things much in California. Pot is so easy to come by, and laws are so rarely enforced, that the vast, vast majority of people who want to smoke pot already do. I believe you would see a miniscule increase in pot use if it is legalized. Generally people who want to do it, do it, and people who don’t want to do won’t start just because it becomes legal.