Alcohol and Affluence: Are the Poor Really the Heaviest Drinkers?

Photo: Billy Huynh for Unsplash

They say money can’t buy happiness—nor can it guarantee freedom from addiction. If anything, money could even contribute!

For decades, Americans have been fed a one-dimensional depiction of alcohol abuse. As a result, most of us share an unflattering mental image of problem drinkers as unkempt winos who, unable to sustain stable careers or relationships, typically end up on the streets or in jail.

But this stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather than being a disease of poverty or painful upbringings (sometimes due to a parent’s drug usage), alcohol use disorder (AUD) affects those from all walks of life—rich and poor alike. And for every individual who checks into rehab, hundreds more fly under the radar each day, often without knowing they fit the criteria for AUD.

“A big misconception is that you have to be the victim of tons of trauma to become addicted,” said Sara Miller, one of Ria Health’s coaches. She noted that alcohol dependence often stems from years’ worth of challenges, whether big or small, which build up like “one thousand paper cuts.”

Indeed, at least twenty percent of the 16 million problem drinkers in the United States are ordinary (even extraordinary!) folks who hold down jobs, boast advanced degrees, own homes, and raise children, just like everyone else. These individuals have come to be known as “high-functioning” in popular culture.

And get this: contrary to widespread belief, upper-class drinkers (as measured by household income) are actually the MOST likely to drink heavily and frequently, compared to their lower-class peers.

Considering how ubiquitous alcohol consumption has become in modern society (family reunions and company outings, anyone?), it’s no wonder members of ALL income brackets are unsure whether their drinking habits are healthy. But there are plenty of other reasons why hordes of Americans remain in the dark about the prevalence—and hazards—of alcohol abuse.

For one thing, so-called “drinking problems”—which fall along a spectrum from mildly disruptive to severe—are anything but black and white. Without consulting a physician or taking a test to gauge their level of risk, most would be shocked to discover they might have a binge drinking disorder (defined as downing four-to-five glasses in the span of two hours, several times per month) or even AUD.

Even when confronted with obvious red flags, the overwhelming majority of problem drinkers deny misusing alcohol because they fail to see how it erodes their physical and emotional wellbeing. Many say to themselves, “I have a family. I work hard every day. My criminal record is clean. How could I have an addiction?” (For more information, see our previous article on barriers to treatment).

This is especially true for “high-functioning drinkers,” who lead relatively successful lives before suffering dramatic setbacks at the hands of alcohol.

In fact, a few reasons for abusing alcohol are somewhat unique to the upper classes, though their roots in stress are common across the board. According to a 2016 study published in Prevention Science, for instance, those from well-to-do neighborhoods typically drink to relieve nervousness and tension, whereas those from disadvantaged neighborhoods do so to forget pressing worries and problems.

“Stress, challenges, all of that is part of every social strata,” said Sara. “Alcohol is a socially acceptable way of relaxing that can kind of go sideways because there is a lot of stress in adult life.”

Members of the upper class also tend to hold more positive attitudes about drinking in general—and especially in social situations—which could explain why they indulge more than most.

Still, it’s not all fun and games for the well-off. Even those in prestigious professions seek relief for stress-induced mental illnesses, market pressures, perceived inadequacy, and occupational errors. These issues may be exacerbated by hours of overtime or high-stake projects and cases.

That’s why approximately 12% of physicians and 18% of attorneys—almost twice the national average, at 10% of the population—are thought to be problem drinkers.

Here’s the bottom line: it’s time to wave away stereotypes about drinking and dough like ancient cobwebs. It’s been shown that even the most successful people suffer from cravings and/or outright dependence on alcohol. And according to Sara, most Ria Health members claim above-average income levels (though our team tries to accommodate those from all different financial backgrounds).

Many professionals flock to Ria Health because we make it easier for them to juggle addiction recovery and work. In order to eliminate the stigma faced by high-profile problem drinkers, our team offers privacy, remote support from friendly coaches and clinicians, and the flexibility of an on-the-go app.

You might toil away at the office, but you shouldn’t have to when it comes to revamping your relationship with alcohol. If you’re ready to make a change, our team is here to help—whether you’re making bank or making ends meet.

Kimberly Nielsen writes about health issues, and has written for various scientific newspapers and blogs. She is currently studying biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and plans to pursue a graduate degree in Public Health.

References:

[1] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/researchers-identify-alcoholism-subtypes

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4872618/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26898509

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4736291/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25409782

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