Are You Drinking Too Much? Depends on Whether You Ask the CDC, NIAAA, or Smashed.

Health and medicine explained.
Oct. 12 2012 12:44 PM

How Much Drinking Is Too Much Drinking?

Smashed is the best movie yet about our relationship with alcohol. 

People drinking at a bar.
How many drinks are OK? How many on a week night? In a weekend? In a week?

Photograph by Hemera Technologies/AbleStock/Thinkstock.

Throughout my childhood, the same 12 bottles of liquor populated our pantry, gathering dust and cobwebs, buried beneath a shifting stock of Canada Dry (my father’s favorite tipple), cereal boxes, and canned goods. Then I turned 16 and realized what the stuff in those musty old bottles was good for. By the time I was through carefully replacing the volume of what I stole with water, the contents would have frozen instantly had the bottles even been placed in the same room as the refrigerator.

Ever since those midnight raids on my parent’s rapidly diluted liquor supply, I’ve enjoyed a good drink. OK, drinks. My peak consumption years coincided with college, when my friends all lived within walking distance and my coffers did not have to be squandered on rent, food, or water bills. I won’t bore you with stock tales of academic revelry; suffice to say that my years at school were frequently punctuated by boozy adventuring and sweetly shambling courtships. It’s a minor miracle I found the time to absorb my Marx, Homer, and Jane Austen readings.

Things tapered off a bit afterward. College-level drinking doesn’t mix particularly well with waking in the morning, caring for pets (not to mention children) or, for those who indulge in the practice, operating automobiles and other assorted heavy machinery. You know, life stuff. It doesn’t do a thing for your writing ability either, contrary to popular belief, unless your editors prefer Choose Your Own Punctuation-style first drafts. (“Whatever part drink may play in the writer’s life, it must play none in his or her work,” Kingsley Amis wrote in his Memoirs; and this from the guy who wrote a book called Every Day Drinking.)

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Alcohol still plays an important part in my social life, as it does for many Americans. Most of my friends and acquaintances drink, keep a supply of booze about the house, and even get drunk, at least on the weekends. Most of us know our limits, and the limits of alcohol, better than we did in high school or college. And who doesn’t know a story of a parent, an uncle, a friend, who has struggled with alcohol, perhaps unto death?

But how many drinks are OK? How many on a week night? In a weekend? In a week? The CDC has extremely stringent answers to these questions. The agency’s definition of “heavy drinking”—an average of more than one drink a day for a woman—could make my mom, a wine-with-dinner lady, sound like Cersei Lannister. My personal experiences of doctors scolding against any overindulgence, ever—no matter the weddings, birthdays, or neighborhood dance parties—leave me feeling exasperated and not disposed to consider their opinion.

Such rigid definitions don’t seem helpful and smack of pathologizing a behavior—drinking with your friends, or even alone in moderation—that has served humanity well since our ancestors settled down for a beer and a bit of civilization. According to the CDC, 50.9 percent of Americans drink regularly (which the agency defines as more than 12 drinks per year). Overly puritanical government and medical cautions against alcohol consumption, which contrast so markedly with the experience of many, could lead drinkers to totally blow off these recommendations.

That would be a grave mistake, too, and one that has plenty of pop-cultural support, from the pages of Tucker Max’s ill-making memoirs to Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night,” which upon completion of this sentence will be stuck in my head for at least a month. (“It's a blacked out blur, but I'm pretty sure it ruled!”) There is evidence that moderate drinking is good for you, but even more evidence that nonmoderate drinking isn’t. This is all made more difficult because definitions of moderation vary, as do every individual’s personal limits. (I had a friend in college who got spectacularly sozzeled off of two beers.)

“According to the CDC, everyone who drinks regularly and in a way that would make Julia Child proud is an at-risk drinker,” says Gabrielle Glaser, author of the forthcoming Her Best-Kept Secret, a book about drinking and American women. “I think we need to completely reframe our conversation: We need to have an open conversation about where fun is and where fun stops.”

Smashed is a movie about two people who have not considered this conversation. Kate and Charlie, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul (he just won an Emmy for Breaking Bad), drink a lot, every day. They are about my age, their professions are familiar (she teaches, he writes), and their affection is evident. They seem to have been having a good time. But Kate, at least, has reached the point where “all the things that used to be funny aren't really funny anymore and things have gone from embarrassing to scary.”