Take It or Leave It


Now that I’m within striking distance of the end of my self-imposed year-long ban on drinking alcohol, I want to share my new appreciation for the surprisingly bifurcated nature of alcohol. A few weeks ago, I had quoted that 30% of American adults do not drink at all and another 30% drink less than one alcoholic beverage a week. Given how much time, energy, money, and everything else that the other 40% spend on alcohol (not to mention the negative consequences that result from drinking too much of it), am I the only one who is surprised to learn that for 60% of adult Americans alcohol is essentially a non-factor?

The info-graphic below does an amazing job of presenting the data on weekly alcohol consumption by breaking it into deciles or 10 equal sized groups of survey participants:

Drinking Info-graphic

This is how you read the graph: each group represents 10% of survey respondents, and, by extrapolation, 10% of all adult Americans. Starting on the left side, you have the folks who don’t drink at all – so you see “0 drinks,” meaning that these 10% chunks of Americans have no drinks in a typical week.  As you move to the right of the graph, you see the results for the next 10% of adult Americans, and so on, and so on. Since the first three deciles each report 0 drinks, this means that it is estimated by this survey that a full 30% of adult Americans do not drink at all.

The survey, just like all of the other stats I’ve seen about alcohol, refers to “drinks” according to the suggested serving size or the “standard drink.” That’s 12 ounces of regular beer (usually about 5% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (typically about 12% alcohol), and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (about 40% alcohol).

With that in mind, continue moving to the right of the graph to see the results for Americans who drink, starting with those who drink the least. This reveals that another 30% drink less than one drink per week — 0.02 drinks per week on average, 0.14 drinks per week, and 0.63 drinks. Keep moving right on the graph to discover that people in the 7th decile report drinking only 2 drinks per week and those in the 8th decile a little less than one drink per day.

Now we’ve reached the part where the graph gets very, very interesting. The 9th decile reports drinking slightly more than 15 drinks per week on average. As I reported in January, before my New Year’s resolution, I typically drank two glasses of wine a night with dinner. This means that I certainly fell in the 9th decile of respondents to this survey. To put that another way, 90% of the American adult population drinks less than I used to!

Now look at the results for the last decile on the graph. On average, this group reports drinking 73.85 drinks per week or more than 10 standard drinks per day. That’s more than the equivalent of 2 bottles of wine a day. And, if you do the math, the people in this top decile consume much more than half of all alcohol consumed by everyone. Although that’s extremely scary, I don’t doubt the veracity of the data.  Do you?

If this interests you, take a look at the post from the Washington Post Wonkblog where I found the information, the official results from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study from which the data originates, the Amazon page for “Paying the Tab,” the 2007 book that shed light on the study, and a review of that book in the New England Journal of Medicine.

And, for the 40% of Americans who have a few drinks (or more) per week and may, like me, have concerns about how that can lead to weight gain, the WP Wokblog also put together this helpful “Guide to Efficient Drinking” that ranks various alcoholic drinks by calories per ounce and calories per serving.


Alcohol is Big Business


Alcohol is big business in the United States, and I used to be a part of it to the tune of more than $4,000 per year. Exactly how big an industry is it? According to a new report by Ken Research, the U.S. market for alcohol will grow to $252.5 billion in 2017. If this report is accurate, the alcohol market in the U.S. this year will be $218 billion. This is significantly larger than what was estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 2012, $170.5 billion. 

My apologies to those of you whose eyes are already starting to glaze over. As my husband said when he edited this post: “Statistics. Damn statistics!”  I, for one, find this very interesting. One reason is that I’m a closet data geek with a Master’s degree in Applied Economics. Another is that I was curious whether my estimate for the cost of my own annual wine consumption ($4,440) is a reasonable estimate. Hopefully, there are others out there who are also interested to see the numbers.

To evaluate whether I’m in the ballpark, I was going to start by comparing my estimate to the best available figure for the average American’s spending on alcohol. I was thinking something as simple as dividing the total spending in the industry in one year by the number of Americans who drink. For every dozen people that drink PBR or do shots of Jäger, there must be at least a few people who like classier wine than I can afford, or who regularly sip Cosmos in Greenwich Village.  I know I’m in between these two types of drinkers, but where, exactly? I’ll start by comparing myself to the average and go from there.

I’ve decided to use the lower U.S.D.A number, because it’s based on the “total value of all food expenditures by final purchasers.” Perhaps the other report includes wholesale purchases, marketing spending, and other stuff. That U.S.D.A. number was $170.5 billion in 2012. The Census data I found is also for 2012, so that works perfectly. The Census says the total U.S. population then was 312 million, with about 242 million of these people being adults. A recent Gallup Survey estimates that two-thirds of American adults drink alcohol. This is consistent with the estimate I found when researching a previous article. 


What does all of this mean? It means that the average drinking American spent about $1,068 a year on alcohol in 2012. My estimated spend is four times that figure. Holy crap! Is that possible? An answer to that must be embedded in the Gallup data.

Indeed, the Gallup Survey says that only 44% of Americans “appear to be regular drinkers, consuming at least one alcoholic beverage in a week.” If I divide all spending on alcohol by just those people, the average goes up to $1,602 per person. Further, after playing with the data, I figured out that the average weekly consumption for the folks who drink is 6.4 drinks per person. My weekly consumption used to be at least 14 glasses of wine (2 per day), or 2.2 times more than the average for drinkers in the survey. Since $1,602 multiplied by 2.2 equals $3,504, we’re getting much closer to my estimate.

The survey also reveals that men by far prefer beer to wine and also that men report drinking much more than women did. Since wine is more expensive than beer — this price list shows a 24-pack of PBR is about the cost of a mid-priced bottle of wine, my number is looking pretty darn accurate.

Although it’s nice to know that I still have mad applied economics skills, it’s embarrassing to discover that I was spending this much more than the average American on alcohol. I’m so glad I’m not doing that this year. To those readers who stayed with me to the very end of this piece, I thank you very much!