Scientists examine Chicago’s binge drinking

By Lauren Osen

Chicago is America’s top binge-drinking city, according to a recent federal study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of the country’s 15 largest metropolitan areas. Researchers defined binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks in one day and found that 25.7 percent of people 12 and older in the Chicago metropolitan area had binged at least once in the last 30 days.

Houston ranked just behind Chicago, with 25.6 percent of its population reporting binge drinking in the last month, followed closely by Boston, with 25 percent. The national average of reported binge drinking was 22.7 percent.

The study did not offer speculations as to why Chicago ranks highest in the nation. The differences among the top three cities are statistically insignificant, said the Health Department’s H. Westley Clark.

Researchers at the U of C, however, are interested in further exploring the causes and consequences of binge drinking.

“We don’t know if you’re born with this predisposition to feeling stimulated by alcohol or if it’s something that’s acquired over time,” researcher Andrea C. King, a psychologist who heads the five-year Chicago Social Drinking Project, said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “We think of binge drinking as a rite of passage for college students, but it may be sensitizing them for the future. It’s not clear.”

Along with binge drinking, the federal study also surveyed major metropolitan areas’ cigarette and illicit drug use, finding that Chicago has the second-highest proportion of smokers in the country. According to the study, 26.2 percent of Chicagoans reported smoking in the past 30 days. That statistic was just barely less than in Detroit, where 27.4 percent of the population reported cigarette use in the past 30 days.

While Chicago may lead the country in binge drinking in addition to having one of the highest smoking rates, the study found that citizens of the Windy City participate in relatively less illicit drug use. At 8.2 percent, Chicago ranked rather low in illicit drug use, a category led by San Francisco, with 12.7 percent of its population reporting illicit drug use in the past 30 days.

Still, the city ranks above the national average in all three categories; the national average for reported illicit drug use was 8.1 percent.