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Binge Drinking during the Holidays

Holidays are occasions for fun and celebration, and alcohol plays a big role in the festivities. But a combination of good cheer and abundant alcohol can take the fun too far, and the long weekends of Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the Fourth of July can lead to some very bad decisions. Binge drinking during the holidays is a big law enforcement and public health problem, and the statistics and data paint a picture that isn’t very festive.

Drinking during the Holidays

Drinking during holidays is a relatively normal practice. Forbes magazine even listed “Ten Reasons to Drink during the Holidays,” mentioning the sociable nature of the reasons behind holidays, whether at the height of summer or the dead of winter. Old friends and family members visit, companies host holiday parties, and streets are decorated with Christmas lights, little American flags, or Halloween pumpkins. It’s hard not to celebrate, says Forbes.

There are other reasons that people drink during the holidays, and not all of them are happy. For many, holidays are a time of loneliness and stress; not everyone enjoys mingling at an office party, and having old friends and seldom-seen relatives under the same roof can lead to embarrassing situations. Financial and economic difficulty is a real problem when there is pressure to buy something to celebrate the occasion while still struggling to pay bills and rent. In this context, it’s hard not to drown sorrows in alcohol.[1]

Given this confluence, Forbes writes that “it is hardly surprising that many people indulge in seasonal binge-drinking.” The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States notes that a quarter of the $49-billion-a-year distilled spirits industry’s profits come from the month between Thanksgiving and the New Year. So strong is the temptation to drink during holiday weekends, that even people who are moderate consumers of alcohol tend to increase their drinking rates. The study that discovered this also noted that most Americans have no idea what high-risk drinking looks like, which lulls them into a false sense of security regarding their limits.[2]

Around the holidays, this becomes a dangerous and often deadly series of risk factors. Not only do people drink more, but there are more cars out on the road, more people driving late at night, and, during the Christmas season, in bad weather.

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Fourth of July

However, even for a summer holiday like the Fourth of July, the prospect of binge drinking is high. The National Safety Council estimates that the Fourth of July is the most dangerous occasion for people on the roads. In 2013, for example, more than 500 people were killed in vehicular accidents on the day of the holiday itself or on the weekend it fell closest to.[3] Police in North Carolina pulled over more than 400 motorists for driving under the influence on July 4, 2015. An added danger is that there are more teenagers out on the roads, enjoying the freedom of summer break as well as late-night celebrations for a traditionally raucous holiday, usually with plenty of beers on hand.

Beer is the typical drink of choice for the Independence Day celebration, more so than on any other holiday event. An average of 34.4 million Americans take to the road every Fourth of July week or weekend, according to Esurance.[4] For the literally hundreds of millions of hot dogs eaten, 68 million cases of beer were cracked open, and this often leads to car accidents, stalled traffic for miles, injuries, and deaths. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety calculated that “the Fourth of July is the worst day of the year for fatal car crashes,” and the National Highway Traffic Safety Association found that between 2007 and 2011, 40 percent of all the highway deaths that occurred were the result of drunk drivers over the Fourth of July weekend. July 3rd was also in the list of the top 10 deadliest days to be on the roads because of drivers being under the influence.[5]

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety writes that car crashes taking place on or during the Independence Day holiday claim an average of 118.4 lives every year. Binge drinking around the Fourth of July makes the occasion “one of the most consistently deadly days of the year,” not just for the people endangering their own lives with their alcohol consumption but for other drivers and pedestrians as well.[6]

Binge Drinking during the Holiday Season

After the Fourth of July, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day (spiking on Thanksgiving itself, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve) accounts for the most extreme cases of alcohol consumption.

“Alcohol consumption increases during the holidays,” notes the Statesman Journal, specifically mentioning a report issued by Alcohol Monitoring Systems that found that over 450,000 monitored DUI offenders increased their drinking rates by 33 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, even though they knew they were being monitored around the clock to test their alcohol consumption. The vice president of Alcohol Monitoring Systems said that such a spike indicated the close degree to which dangerous drinking and holidays (and the holiday season) were intertwined. While the fact that knowingly monitored drinkers drank even more than they normally did during the holidays, “you can imagine the rate of drinking for those who aren’t being monitored,” said the vice president.[7]

Blackout Wednesday

Thanksgiving is not usually thought of as an alcohol-friendly holiday like the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve are, but as the official start of the holiday season and an opportunity to have a three-day workweek, binge drinking rates are still high around that time of year. “Blackout Wednesday” is the unofficial name given to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Thursday, and it is a “big night of drinking,” in the words of the Wall Street Journal.[8] As with the other big holidays, a confluence of conditions come together to make this an exceedingly alcohol-heavy time.

Local news from Indianapolis writes that it is mostly college students home for the holidays who contribute to the increased danger of binge drinking and drunk driving before the Thanksgiving holiday, so much so that police put out extra patrols to keep the streets safe, “especially in the city’s entertainment districts.”[9] An officer with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said that Blackout Wednesday was one of the busiest nights of the year for bars, even more so than New Year’s Eve or St. Patrick’s Day, as people tend to go out with friends before the family feast the following day. The Indiana chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving explained that “most people don’t even realize how dangerous [drunk driving] is,” especially because the Thanksgiving holiday is not infamous for excessive alcohol consumption in the same way that events like Halloween and the New Year’s Eve tend to be. With literally millions of people on the roads and bars being packed before everything shuts down on Thanksgiving, Blackout Wednesday can be a very risky night, particularly for travelers.

The problem is such that over 300 law enforcement agencies in Minnesota coordinated their Blackout Wednesday efforts to keep binge drinking drivers off the roads. In one county alone, 25 officers agreed to overtime patrols on busy streets. There is precedent for this level of work. In 2015, the sheriff’s office and nine partnering police departments stopped more than 340 drivers for suspicion of driving under the influence. Eight of those drivers were arrested, which is an improvement from 2014 when 18 drivers were arrested for DWIs.

The drop in numbers represents greater education and enforcement about the dangers of drunk driving, but binge drinking still happens behind closed doors, and a police sergeant told local news that “there are still way too many people driving impaired” right before the Thanksgiving holiday. Between 2011 and 2015, there were 48 vehicle-related deaths in Minnesota from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and 13 of those fatalities were the result of one or more people involved in the accident being intoxicated.[10]

From Christmas to New Year’s Day

When it comes to holidays, the period that starts before Christmas and ends on New Year’s Day accounts for some of the highest incidents of binge drinking and related public health problems. In a story sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, the Statesman Journal writes of how the Christmas season, and especially Christmas week, creates a number of opportunities for drinking to get out of control.[11] An addiction medical specialist with Kaiser explains that overindulging during the holidays is easy. There is plenty of food, drink, and good cheer to go around, and moderation is rarely taken seriously. There is the idea that being more responsible with food and alcohol consumption in January will ameliorate any excesses during the holiday season, so people tend to eat and drink more.

To that point, US News & World Report adds that even social drinkers can face a barrage of temptations to drink more than they normally do. At house parties, office parties, and bars, alcohol is in constant flow in the buildup to Christmas and New Year’s. Champagne, for example, has always been a part of toasting the start of a new year, and it’s not limited to a single drink. An addiction psychiatrist told US News that “usually the parties start well before midnight.”[12]

Attitudes Toward Holiday Drinking

The vice president and clinical director for a treatment center in New York noted that most adults in the United States have “rather shocking attitudes” toward holiday drinking, especially in the context of work-related parties. Employees make ill-advised sexual overtures toward their colleagues or get into screaming matches or actual physical fights – all behaviors fueled by drinking too much alcohol too quickly. Even inappropriate comments made after one too many drinks have led to termination slips, suggesting the degree to which people are unaware of their limits or to which their holiday drinking is putting them at risk.

All told, these factors contributed to there being 1,200 alcohol-related deaths during the 2015 holiday season. Between 2010 and 2014, the average death toll on January 1st was 118.2.[13]

Binge Drinking during Halloween

Halloween is usually known for trick-or-treating kids dressed up in their favorite superhero costumes, but the day has also become infamous for raucous and alcohol-fueled parties for adults of all ages. A website for college-aged women describes Halloween night (or the closest weekend before the day itself) as an evening of “costume parties and free booze,” and Vice sardonically writes that “Halloween is a holiday centered around starting a new month in a hangover of regret.” [14], [15]

Humor aside, the excessive Halloween consumption that takes place around the occasion puts lots of people at risk. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that between the Halloween nights of 2009 and 2013, 43 percent of the motor vehicle deaths involved a driver or a motorcyclist with a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit of 0.08%, and 23 percent of pedestrian fatalities included a driver who had had too much to drink. Men between the ages of 21 and 34 accounted for almost 50 percent of the drunk drivers who were killed in traffic accidents across the country during the Halloween week of 2011. On college campuses, the rate of binge drinking around Halloween is such that even medical literature refers to the occasion as a “well-known drinking day,” comparable to similar behavior exhibited on New Year’s Eve and football game days.[16]

Every year, police officers prepare themselves for what could happen when trick-or-treating children and teenagers are on the same dark and rainy streets as drunk drivers. Their job gets more difficult when Halloween falls on a weekend, which means that typical weekend behavior of drinking too much is exacerbated by the occasion. Similarly, when Halloween falls during the workweek, the parties are usually spread out on the weekends before and after the actual day and even the night of Halloween itself.

Even a tradition as innocuous as carving a pumpkin can become a real nightmare if alcohol enters the mix. An emergency physician in New York City noted that many adults tend to mix pumpkin-cutting with the drinking element of their Halloween festivities, and the results are rarely good. “Puncture-type injuries are quite common during Halloween, especially injuries to the index finger,” he said, also noting that the loss of motor coordination that comes from heavy drinking can combine with poor weather and low-visibility conditions to cause a rash of injuries.[17]

St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day was made a feast day in the Christian calendar in the 17th century to honor the life and work of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, for his work in introducing Christianity to the otherwise druidic island. Today, however, the date of March 17th is perhaps best (and most infamously) known as an American invention, initially intended to celebrate the Irish diaspora in the United States, and now a day when “green beer and Guinness” flows freely, to the point of being the fourth-largest drinking holiday in the country[18],[19]

Copious alcohol consumption, to the point of binge drinking, has become an unfortunate characteristic of the event, so much so that police departments around the country have had to ready themselves for a rash of ill-advised and alcohol-fueled behaviors that put people at risk. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 252 people died as a result of drunk driving on St. Patrick’s Day (or the days immediately following or preceding it) between 2011 and 2015. By one estimate, an alcohol-related car accident takes place every 72 minutes on St. Patrick’s Day, and as many as 75 percent of those accidents happen when one of the drivers has drunk over two times the legal limit.[20] Another estimate, this one by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, found that the time between fatal alcohol-related car crashes on or around St. Patrick’s Day was only 46 minutes.[21]

St. Patrick’s Day and College Campuses

To combat the trend of excessive drinking and driving during St. Patrick’s Day in Colorado, a total of 88 law enforcement agencies upped their patrols. The chief colonel for the Colorado State Patrol told the Denver Post that too many people do not realize “that even one drink can impair your ability to drive.”[22] Given the nature of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, the implications of the one drink is often quickly overshadowed by the temptation and encouragement to consume much more alcohol, with little thought given to the consequences. March 17th fell on a Friday in 2017, so a number of police departments in California increased their DUI patrols, and they also issued statements in the press and social media about the dangers of binge drinking and drunk driving, suggesting safer alternatives like slowing down the rate of drinking and having a designated driver.[23]

On college campuses, the danger of binge drinking to ring in St. Patrick’s Day becomes a legitimate public health issue. According to Esquire magazine, “college campuses go near insane” with their celebrations. Pennsylvania State University students even created their own “State Patty’s Day,” so they can mark the occasion while actually on campus since the real St. Patrick’s Day usually falls during spring break, which brings its own binge drinking problems.[24]

Cinco de Mayo

Another historical occasion that has become a focus for binge drinking is Cinco de Mayo. Literally translated as “the fifth of May,” the day marks the date of a Mexican military victory over France in the Franco-Mexican War of 1861-1867. A&E’s History notes that Cinco de Mayo is “a relatively minor holiday in Mexico,” but it found popularity in 1940s America. The Chicano movement made the celebration of the French military defeat a point of pride among Mexican American immigrants and their descendants in the United States.[25] According to TIME magazine, observing Cinco de Mayo became commercialized “by alcohol companies trying to tap into the Hispanic market” to the tune of annual spending of $171 million on Spanish-language advertising. From this came a day often celebrated by drinking tequila, making Cinco de Mayo one of the “top 10 drunkest holidays in America,” according to TIME, which also notes that “Americans will take just about any excuse to drink.”[26]

Such is the extent of binge drinking culture surrounding Cinco de Mayo that, according to Retale, the money spent on beers and other alcoholic beverage dwarfs other renowned occasions like St. Patrick’s Day, the Fourth of July, and even the Super Bowl.[27] A big driver of this popularity is the rising population of Mexican Americans, some of whom may be aware that Cinco de Mayo is not a significant day in the Mexican year but they feel compelled to join in the celebrations with their American friends. To this point, Civic Science writes that most of the people who do use the 5th of May as a day to drink are unlikely to be aware of the history behind the date, with many even assuming that May 5th and/or Cinco de Mayo itself are related to Mexican independence, which they are not.[28] Nonetheless, an average of 14 million gallons of tequila are drunk on or around the day itself.

Celebrating around Binge Drinking

Regardless of the occasion, binge drinking is a serious problem. The Centers for Disease Control explains that drinking too much too fast causes a variety of injuries and chronic conditions as well as alcohol poisoning. It increases the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies while also putting a fetus in harm’s way.[29]

Fortunately, however, there are many ways to enjoy holidays and special occasions while going easy on the alcohol or even avoiding drinking entirely. As the police departments in Colorado and California said, spacing out drinks to one per hour or drinking lots of water between your drinks will ensure that your body’s metabolic system is able to stay on top of all the alcohol it has to process. Additionally, going out to celebrate a holiday with a sober friend or designated driver can help people moderate their alcohol consumption.

For college students, who are among the most likely people to face the temptation to binge drink for any kind of celebration, the Huffington Post has some suggestions on how to stay safe. For example, there is always studying to do, so bowing out of a party because of an imminent deadline is “the ultimate excuse.”

Many colleges are home to sober student groups, intended for students who are in recovery or students who simply want to get through their school years with a clear head. In such environments, there is obviously no pressure to drink although different groups have their own policies on the level of acceptable alcohol drinking, from a one-drink maximum to complete abstinence.

Many bars also serve nonalcoholic drinking options, which present a completely safe way to join in with the festivities. Around holidays, some bars offer promotions for nondrinkers, such as free drinks, in order to promote responsible drinking.[30]

Recovery during the Holidays

The pressure and strain of various holiday seasons and occasions are not lost on the treatment community, so there are many assistance options for binge drinking or a problematic dependence on alcohol. Residential rehabilitation facilities tend to have more available space during the holidays, so getting into a program of choice becomes much easier. Waiting until January increases the risk of being put on a waiting list because that is when most people, burned out on seasonal celebrations, try to get into treatment.

Naturally, being in a treatment program during an important holiday has its downsides, but it also means that you will avoid all the triggers and temptations that come at the time. If you are concerned about your drinking, not being near alcohol or people who are drinking alcohol and encouraging you to drink along with them will help you enjoy a special occasion without the risk of relapse or running into a problem because you had too much to drink. Much like sober student groups on college campuses, a good treatment facility will still have a Christmas party or a Halloween celebration but with healthy alternatives to binge drinking. Supportive family members and close friends will be part of these celebrations, so you do not have to feel that you are missing out on spending a special occasion with loved ones.

Being willing to check into a program during a holiday period signals your serious intention on overcoming your drinking problem. This can bode very well as you start your new life after treatment. Commitment to a program while everyone else is out celebrating demonstrates your trustworthiness and work ethic, and this can help you as you apply for jobs and loans that will be sympathetic to your mental health history. Informed and perceptive employers and supervisors can also reach out to employees who may be struggling. Working over a holiday weekend is sometimes a necessary evil, and a boss who knows how to recognize the signs of a drinking problem in the office (maybe through the use of an Employee Assistance Program) shows a healthy investment in both their employee and making sound business decisions.[31]

Holidays are an investment, and so is health. Binge drinking during the holidays may seem to be the trend, but there are safer, smarter ways to have fun on a special occasion without putting yourself or other people at risk.

More Statistics and Information

[1] "Ten Reasons to Drink during the Holidays." (December 2006). Forbes. Accessed November 29, 2017.

[2] "Many Americans Oblivious to What High-Risk Drinking Looks Like." (November 2013). PR Newswire. Accessed November 29, 2017.

[3] "24/7 Wall Street: The Most Dangerous Holidays." (December 2013). USA Today. Accessed November 29, 2017.

[4] "DUI Statistics and the Fourth of July." (n.d.) Esurance. Accessed November 29, 2017.

[5] "The Fourth of July Is One of the Deadliest Days for Drunk Driving." (July 2017). Vox. Accessed November 29, 2017.

[6] "Independence Day Ranks Highest in Average Daily Crash Deaths." (June 2016). Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Accessed November 30, 2017.

[7] "Alcohol Consumption Increases during the Holidays." (December 2015). Statesman Journal. Accessed November 30, 2017.

[8] "Before the Turkey, a Big Night of Drinking." (November 2011). Wall Street Journal. Accessed December 1, 2017.

[9] "Police Increase Patrols for Blackout Wednesday." (November 2016). WTHR. Accessed December 1, 2017.

[10] "On ‘Blackout Wednesday,’ Law Enforcement Will Be Looking for Blitzed Drivers." (November 2016). StarTribune. Accessed December 1, 2017.

[11] "Alcohol Consumption Increases during Holidays." (December 2015). Statesman Journal. Accessed December 1, 2017.

[12] "How To Know When Holiday Drinking Is a Problem." (December 2014). US News & World Report. Accessed December 1, 2017.

[13] "Sobering Statistics on Holiday Drinking and Driving." (n.d.) MassMoms.com. Accessed December 2, 2017.

[14] "What Going Out On Halloween Is Really Like in College." (October 2017). Her Campus. Accessed December 2, 2017.

[15] "What Kind of Shitty Halloween Party Will You End Up At?" (October 2016). Vice. Accessed December 2, 2017.

[16] "Hook 'em Horns and Heavy Drinking: Alcohol Use and Collegiate Sports." (November 2008). Addictive Behaviors. Accessed December 2, 2017.

[17] "Alcohol, Drugs a Poor Halloween Mix." (October 2016). MedicineNet.com. Accessed December 2, 2017.

[18] "Saint Patrick's Day Facts." (March 2017). WalletHub. Accessed December 3, 2017.

[19] "Partying It up on Saint Patrick's Day?" (March 2005). NBC News. Accessed December 3, 2017.

[20] "Saint Patrick's Day – Drive Sober." (n.d.) Traffic Safety Marketing. Accessed December 3, 2017.

[21] "Binge Drinking Warning Ahead of St. Patrick's Day." (March 2017). FOX59. Accessed December 3, 2017.

[22] "Law Enforcement Agencies Will Be Extra Alert for DUIs over St. Patrick’s Day Weekend." (March 2017). Denver Post. Accessed December 3, 2017.

[23] "Beefed up Police Presence, DUI Checkpoints Planned for St. Patrick’s Day." (March 2017). CBS Los Angeles. Accessed December 3, 2017.

[24] "Just How Much of a Sh*tshow Is St. Patrick's Day? Here Are the Real Numbers." (March 2017). Esquire. Accessed December 3, 2017.

[25] "Cinco de Mayo." (n.d.) History. Accessed December 3, 2017.

[26] "Happy St. Patrick's Day: Top 10 Drunkest Holidays." (March 2011). TIME. Accessed December 4, 2017.

[27] "Cinco de Mayo Drinking Puts Super Bowl and St. Patrick’s Day to Shame." (April 2016). Retale. Accessed December 4, 2017.

[28] "No, Cinco de Mayo Is Not Mexican Independence Day – Here's What It Is." (May 2016). NBC News. Accessed December 4, 2017.

[29] "Fact Sheets – Binge Drinking." (June 2017). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed December 4, 2017.

[30] "How to Avoid Binge Drinking This St. Patrick's Day." (March 2014). Huffington Post. Accessed December 4, 2017.

[31] "Revisiting Employee Assistance Programs and Substance Use Problems in the Workplace: Key Issues and a Research Agenda." (July 2012). Psychiatric Services. Accessed December 4, 2017.