A behavioural scientist offers new criteria for defining how much is too much
Although serious alcoholics do plenty of damage to themselves and others, it’s the people with moderate drinking problems who cause the most trouble, simply because there are more of them – about four problem drinkers for every one with a serious alcohol dependency.
The bad news is that most of these problem drinkers – an estimated 1.5 million in Ontario – never seek help. The good news is that relatively brief and easy interventions can help them, says John A. Cunningham, a professor of social and behavioural sciences. “In Canada, only one in three people who experience lifetime [alcohol] problems will ever seek treatment,” Cunningham says. They either don’t think they have a problem, or would prefer to deal with it themselves. So Cunningham is developing quick and easy intervention methods that are also effective.
When problem drinkers take a 10-minute Internet survey that Cunningham developed, they cut their drinking by about a third. The survey – at checkyourdrinking.net – asks about the amount of alcohol consumed, and compares it to averages for others of the same age and sex. It also reports how much the drinker spends on alcohol, and his or her chances of suffering negative consequences from drinking.
In 2007, Cunningham launched a study that included 72 problem drinkers, about half of whom took his survey. He tracked their drinking for a year and found that, after six months, the survey participants had reduced their alcohol consumption by 30 per cent more than the non-participants, although after 12 months all drinkers had cut down. (Cunningham notes that many problem drinkers involved in a study reduce alcohol consumption on their own. But he says his intervention gave the survey-takers a year with greater reductions.) Cunningham is now working on a similar questionnaire in the form of a pamphlet mailed to households.