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What is considered as 'heavy drinking'?
03:00 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Definition of heavy drinking varies slightly and is different for men and women

Heavy drinking is defined as 8 or more drinks a week for women, 15 or more for men

Heavy drinking is the third leading cause of preventable death

CNN  — 

Sheldon Shiraki sits at the bar in the trendy Fritti restaurant in Atlanta, happily sipping an ice cold cocktail.

Asked how many drinks it would take for the government to consider him a “heavy drinker,” he laughs.

“I don’t know – maybe 25 to 30 drinks,” Shiraki says.

“A month?” I ask.

“A week,” Shiraki says with a smile.

“Let me do the math,” his friend Pamela Gjerde says from the next bar stool over. A local, she calls the bartender by name and says she will sip a glass of white wine a couple days a week. For a woman to be considered a “heavy drinker” she thinks she’d have to have 15 to 20 drinks weekly.

Heavy Drinker Definition graphic

They both looked shocked to learn they seriously overestimated the number.

Women are considered “heavy drinkers” if they have eight or more drinks a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Men can have 14. At 15, you, my friend, are a “heavy drinker” in the eyes of the CDC.

World Cup survival glass tells you when to stop drinking

One in 10 deaths among adults between the ages of 20 and 64 are due to excessive alcohol consumption, the CDC says in a report released Wednesday. That means some 88,000 people die a year as a result of drinking too much. The majority of those are men – about 70%.

Do you consider yourself a light, moderate or heavy drinker? Health agencies have these definitions to help you understand when your drinking may become a health problem.

The definition is different for women because women’s bodies are typically smaller than men’s. They also metabolize less alcohol in the stomach, meaning more ends up in their blood stream.

A standard “drink,” by the way, is not that big frosty mug or that giant Hurricane glass you kept from Mardi Gras. The CDC says a drink is 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content), 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content), 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content), or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor – the fancy term for gin, rum, vodka, whiskey etc.

“That seems awfully low,” Shiraki says. “I would think someone is a heavy drinker if they get drunk all the time. Two or three a night wouldn’t do that.”

“That definition is crazy.”

Drinking heavily

“The definition of ‘heavy drinker’ has evolved over the last 20 years and it is based on scientific evidence about the harmful consequences of drinking too much,” says George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who has sat on the committees that create those definitions.

The definition on NIAAA’s website of “heavy” or “at-risk” drinking is the same as the CDC’s.

But the National Survey on Drug Use and Health has another. They say “heavy use” is “five or more drinks on the same occasion, on each of five or more days in the past 30 days.”

So which one is it?

“It’s imprecise and not quantitative. I try to avoid using terms like ‘heavy,’ ‘light’ and ‘moderate’ for that reason in my publications,” says Dr. Arthur Klatsky who has been studying alcohol and its impact on humans for decades. “The problem is everyone always wants to know if they fit into one of those categories.”