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Background:

Although daily and weekly drinking limits demonstrate strong sensitivity and specificity in identifying alcohol use disorders (AUDs), there are no descriptive data that present the risks associated with exceeding these limits in a format suitable for presentation to patients, students, and the general public.

Methods:

Data collected in the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions were used to estimate the risks of past-year DSM-IV alcohol abuse and dependence associated with various frequencies of exceeding daily drinking limits (no more than 4 drinks for men; no more than 3 drinks for women) in a nationally representative sample of 26,946 US drinkers 18 years of age and older. These risks were further categorized by whether weekly drinking limits (no more than 14 drinks for men; no more than 7 drinks for women) were exceeded and by maximum number of drinks consumed in the past year.

Results:

The prevalence of alcohol dependence with abuse increased in a fairly linear fashion with frequency of exceeding daily drinking limits. The prevalence of dependence alone (no abuse) and abuse alone (no dependence) peaked among persons who exceeded the daily limits twice a week and then leveled off, because individuals became increasingly likely to have both disorders at higher frequencies. Exceeding the weekly limits generally increased the risks of both disorders after accounting for frequency of exceeding the daily limits, but not always to a significant extent. Likewise, maximum quantity of drinks consumed was positively associated with the risks of AUDs even after accounting for frequency of risk drinking. There were few gender differences in the risk of dependence after adjusting for frequency of exceeding daily drinking limits, but the risk of alcohol abuse remained greater among men.

Conclusions:

These data provide a useful tool for illustrating the broad range of risk of AUDs associated with exceeding recommended drinking limits, and they support the utility of the daily and weekly drinking limits in predicting AUDs.