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National Health Interview Survey Suggests Drinkers Drinking Less than A Decade Ago

Population and sales data suggest that per capita absolute alcohol consumption changes little in the US over time, regardless of changes in demographics or the “4 Ps” that public health advocates aim to restrict or control: product, price, place, promotion.  As AII has repeatedly noted, per capita adult absolute alcohol consumption remained stable at about 2.5 gallons for the last 20 or more years. That’s despite an explosion of new products, pricing that has made alcohol more affordable, vastly expanded availability and increased promotion, whether in traditional or social media.  But what about the smaller subset of drinkers? Are drinkers drinking more or less than they were a decade ago? This data is difficult to come by and not terribly reliable given the amount of underreporting that occurs. Indeed, Gallup Polls consistently report that American drinkers average but 4 drinks/week, far less than the average of 2+ per day that sales data would suggest.

Just as the Monitoring the Future Surveys suggest that at least younger people are drinking less heavily than in the past (see October AII), the annual National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) also indicates that drinkers are in fact drinking less than they were a decade ago.  NHIS reports the number of lifetime abstainers, former drinkers (frequent and infrequent), current infrequent drinkers and current regular drinkers. Current infrequent drinkers are those who had less than 12 drinks in the past year, less than 1 drink per month. Current regular drinkers include all of those who drink more than 1/month.  By these measures, 54.5% of all Americans age 18+ were current regular drinkers in 2017, 131.6 million adults. About 12% were very light drinkers. Like the MTF data we reported in October, these figures align well with annual Gallup Poll numbers which show that (consistently) about 2/3 of American adults “have occasion to drink,” in Gallup’s parlance.  Interestingly, the number and percentage of current regular drinkers increased more rapidly over the last decade than the overall adult population. While the adult population increased by 23.5 million, 10%, the number of current drinkers expanded by nearly 27 million, 26%. The percentage who are current drinkers moved up from 48.6% of all adults to 54.5%.  Women provided most of that growth: the percentage of female adults who are current regular drinkers increased from 39.8% to 48.5%, while the increase among men was more modest, from 58.1% to 61.1%. Meanwhile, total gallons of absolute alcohol sold in the US grew by 11%, much closer to the overall adult population growth.

These trends indicate that per capita absolute alcohol consumption among drinkers declined by about 13% over the last decade, from 5.1 gallons of absolute alcohol to 4.44 gallons.  So, if you toss out all of the infrequent drinkers, and accept the NHIS reports as “accurate” (a stretch perhaps) these trends suggest that drinkers reduced their average consumption from nearly 3 drinks/day in 2007 to 2.6 drinks/day in 2017.  Is that good news or bad news? From a sales standpoint, no one in the industry welcomes a decline. But everyone welcomes the broadening of the base. From a health standpoint, moderation is no doubt beneficial. Then again, most of the science supports the notion that 2.6 drinks/day does not pose a huge threat to most adults, and likely has cardiovascular and other benefits.  But those who are increasingly skeptical about those benefits and who are adopting the mantra that “no drinking is safe” probably view that figure as dangerously high.

Other data from the 2017 NHIS show once again how varied drinking rates are among different demographic groups.  Many of NHIS’ findings corroborate other drinking surveys. White Americans are significantly more likely to be current regular drinkers (54.5%) compared to African Americans (42.1%), Hispanics (42.8%) and Asians (40.9%).  Likelihood of being a current regular drinker rises directly with employment, education and income. Nearly 2/3 of full-time employees are current regular drinkers compared to 53.3% of part-time workers and 44% of the currently unemployed.  Nearly 70% of those with family incomes over $100K/year are current regular drinkers. That drops directly to 41.5% of those with household incomes below $35K/year. Similarly, almost 70% of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher are current regular drinkers, compared to about one-third of those with less than a high school diploma.  Region of residence and marital status seem to have less impact on being a drinker or not than income and education. Nor does age up to 64: 55-59% of Americans up to age 64 are current regular drinkers. That drops to 47% between age 64 and 75 and 34.4% after age 75.

Publishing Info

  • Year: 2018
  • Volume: 35
  • Issue #: 12
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