by Patricia McBroom
Unusually heavy drinking by young white men-a pattern for nearly 30 years-has taken a dramatic nosedive, dropping by half in the past decade, from 32 percent to 16 percent of the 18-29 age group.
The decline occurred between the years 1984 and 1995, according to a major new study of drinking patterns among 6,000 American men and women of different ethnic origins, reported in November by Berkeley researchers.
Young black and Hispanic men showed no such decline in frequent, heavy alcohol use during the same time periods, although rates had been initially lower among these men, the researchers said in a report to the 125th annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Indianapolis.
This is the first time that comparative information on drinking patterns among ethnic groups has been available for a large enough group of minorities to make comparisons with the majority population. Between 1,500 and 2,000 men and women from each of three groups-white, black and Hispanic-were personally interviewed for each of the two surveys, giving first-ever probability samples on minority groups.
Compared to the 16 percent of young white men who drank heavily in 1995 (five or more drinks at one sitting at least once a week), 18 percent of young black men and 17 percent of young Hispanic men were also frequent, heavy drinkers, virtually the same rate for young minority men as in 1984.
"Heavy drinking among white men used to peak in their 20s and then decline. Now the rate is practically flat through the 20s, 30s and 40s and then it declines," said Raul Caetano, an adjunct associate professor in the School of Public Health and director of the school's Alcohol Research Group.
He said the change indicates a substantial decline in the risk of alcoholism among white men over the past 10 years.
Caetano believes that the drop in heavy drinking may come from a growing health consciousness in the white population that also is reflected in more exercise and lower rates of cigarette smoking. The move away from heavy drinking, however, was not confined to the well-educated, as it tends to be with smoking.
Frequent, heavy use fell across the board for white men of all ages and all income groups, said Caetano. The trend was particularly strong among men in their 50s, whose rate of heavy use fell from 19 percent to 3 percent.
Drinking patterns for minority men, on the other hand, were considerably different than for whites. Although rates of heavy, frequent use remained the same for black and Hispanic men over the 10-year time period, large numbers of minority men chose to abstain from alcohol completely in 1995, the survey showed.
Rates of abstention grew from about a quarter to more than a third of all black and Hispanic men while remaining steady at 24-26 percent for whites, said Caetano.
These findings suggest, he said, that different forces are driving the drinking patterns of white and minority men-many of them yet to be discovered.
Education and income levels, for instance, had no impact on heavy drinking for men of any ethnic group.
"The notion that lower income and education are driving minority men into heavy drinking is not supported by our survey data," said Caetano. "There are a lot of myths out there and this is one of them."
"The great majority of people who are poor and not well educated do not have any problems with heavy drinking," he said.
Another unexpected finding was an almost complete lack of relationship between declining rates of heavy drinking for whites and reports of alcohol-related problems. While heavy drinking declined, for example, the number of alcohol-related problems did not.
Problems such as belligerence, accidents, sense of control over drinking, work and health related problems and problems with the police, spouse and others remained at a steady level over the past decade for whites and blacks, but increased substantially for Hispanics, the survey shows.
It may be, said Caetano, that as heavy drinking declines, tolerance for that behavior also declines, accompanied by a greater willingness to report problems.
The rise in alcohol-related problems for Hispanics -which almost doubled over 10 years -is of great concern, said Caetano. There also was a strong increase in heavy drinking among Hispanic men in their 40s, from 10 percent to 23 percent of that age group.
Moreover, unemployment was strongly linked with the appearance of drinking problems among Hispanics, but not among blacks.
These findings suggest that simple public health campaigns aimed at raising an individual's health consciousness may not work among minority people, said Caetano.
"We need more comprehensive approaches," he said. "Education is not enough. We also need to control advertising targeted at minority groups and we need to control the number of liquor stores in minority communities.
"If we try only to change the individual's behavior, we won't succeed in bringing down heavy drinking among blacks and Hispanics.