Study Identifies Three Types of Low-Risk Drinkers

When psychologists investigate people’s patterns of alcohol use, they often look at what happens when alcohol use becomes a problem. They consider questions such as what might predispose people to risky drinking habits, and how risky drinking habits tip into a full-blown alcohol problem.

But a new study published in Drug and Alcohol Review comes at things from the opposite direction by examining the habits of low-risk drinkers.

Since the study was led by researchers in Australia, it used the Australian definition of “low-risk drinking.” Specifically, the researchers classified as low-risk drinkers anyone who consumed at least one but no more than 730 Australian standard drinks in the previous year without ever consuming five or more drinks in one sitting.

That led to a sample of 8,492 adults who were low-risk drinkers. Looking more carefully at those adults’ drinking habits, the researchers found that low-risk drinkers broadly fell into three groups:

  • Special occasion drinkers whose drinks were few and far between
  • Regular moderate drinkers who drank 5-6 days a week and averaged a little more than one Australian standard drink per day
  • Regular sippers who drank 5-6 days a week but averaged only half a drink per day

Occasional drinking was the most common type of low-risk drinking, with 65 percent of participants surveyed falling into that category. Moderate drinking and regular sipping clocked in at 20 and 15 percent of participants respectively.

So why should we care about the alcohol consumption habits of low-risk drinkers? Just to give them a pat on the back?

Well, the authors of the study point out that emphasizing the benefits of low-risk drinking could help challenge social norms that contribute to heavy drinking, such as the idea that drinking has to mean heavy drinking. Alternatively, understanding low-risk drinking could help shed light on whether even less problematic types of alcohol consumption carry health risks.

One barrier that remains to understanding low-risk drinking is that researchers and public health officials around the world have yet to agree on what exactly “low-risk drinking” is.

A 2012 paper highlighted the lack of consensus in different countries’ alcohol use recommendations, pointing out a “remarkable lack of agreement” about how much daily drinking is too much.

What does seem clear, though, is that fully understanding patterns of unhealthy alcohol use will also require asking questions about healthy alcohol use and learning about when low-risk drinking turns high-risk.