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When Does Moderate Drinking Become A Problem?

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When Does Moderate Drinking Become A Problem?


When Does Moderate Drinking Become A Problem?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today in "Your Health," we're looking at drinking. We'll hear how parents can encourage their teenagers to make wise decisions. First, though, let's get some guidance for adults. Health experts say if you want to stay within safe limits, men should have no more than two drinks a day and women, only one. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond to look at some of the factors that should go into your calculations.

Mr. JAY D. DUCOTE (Author of Bite and Booze blog): OK. We've logged onto

PATTI NEIGHMOND: Jay Ducote's blog chronicles his adventures in food and drink, mostly in southern Louisiana, where he lives.

Mr. DUCOTE: I definitely appreciate good food and good drink, and one of the things that I really like to do is try to mix the two.

NEIGHMOND: Ducote says he's a big guy who tolerates more alcohol than most. When Ducote goes out with friends, or watches a football game, he'll often have three to four drinks. The question is: Is that too much?

Mr. DUCOTE: It certainly does register with me that every now and then, I'm probably drinking too much or drinking too often.

NEIGHMOND: So Ducote says when he gets to that point, he'll take a break and not drink at all for a few days. Experts describe Ducote's drinking habits as being in a gray zone - more than what's considered safe, but less than what's considered risky.

Psychologist Will Corbin defines risky drinking as binge drinking - more than five drinks for a man, and more than four drinks for a woman, over a two-hour period.

Dr. WILL CORBIN (Associate Professor, Department of Psychology; Arizona State University): Some people can probably drink in that area between the, you know, guidelines for safe drinking and that binge-drinking standard without getting into too much trouble, whereas other people, if they start to get up to two or three or four drinks, might be at - you know - higher risk for continuing to drink to the point where it starts to cause problems for them.

NEIGHMOND: So at Arizona State University, Corbin's studying this gray zone of drinking, to try to figure out who's at risk for problems and who's not.

(Soundbite of liquid pouring)

Dr. CORBIN: I've got some Captain Morgan's rum. I've got Cuervo tequila, Baileys, Jack Daniels, Crown Royal...

NEIGHMOND: Corbin's research lab sounds like a bar and looks like one, too -dark floors, black ceilings, chandeliers, a flat-screen TV. Volunteers come to the bar for one night only, fill out a questionnaire, and then they're served three cocktails over a 30-minute period.

(Soundbite of liquid pouring)

Dr. Corbin: It's always Absolut vodka mixed with 7UP, cranberry and lime juice. So that's our standard drink here in the lab.

NEIGHMOND: One of the questions Corbin wants to answer, by observing and questioning these drinkers, is do their expectations about alcohol affect how much they actually drink?

Dr. Corbin: So just coming into this bar is going to kind of activate those beliefs you have about how alcohol's going to affect your behavior. And so a lot of times, we'll see people start to act differently before we've even given them any alcohol. And people can observe that in the real world, too, right? You go with a group of friends into a bar and before they've finished that first drink, oftentimes they're acting more social; maybe they're talking more loudly.

NEIGHMOND: After they've had their three drinks, Corbin asks the volunteers how they're feeling - are they invigorated, for example.

Dr. Corbin: Vigorous, excited, happy.

NEIGHMOND: Or are they a little depressed - feeling dizzy, sleepy, maybe even a bit sick. What Corbin's finding is people who feel stimulated by alcohol are more likely to keep drinking if given the chance.

Other researchers are looking at known risk factors for alcohol problems, like family history and an impulsive personality. Harvard epidemiologist Eric Rimm says they're trying to figure out how all these risk factors fit together.

Dr. ERIC RIMM (Associate Professor, Department of Epidemiology and Nutrition; Harvard School of Public Health): Is there a group of people out there - and there probably is, and they're trying to figure out the genetics of that. And it's not one gene; it's probably a combination of a few different factors that does make people susceptible. And that's why, if you are a child of a mother or father who's an alcoholic, then maybe the healthiest amount of alcohol is zero.

NEIGHMOND: And for people who drink in that gray zone - like Jay Ducote - it's a matter of adding up your own, individual risk factors and making a judgment about whether it's prudent to have another drink.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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