Problem-free drinking over 16 years among individuals with alcohol use disorders

A new study suggests that abstinence is the best goal for most problem drinkers. The description immediately begs the question of how many members of the study group only met criteria for DSM abuse. I went to the full text and it looks like this group was composed of pretty heavy drinkers. They averaged 12.5 drinks per drinking episode.

Results – In the 6 months prior to the 1-year assessment, 36% (n = 152) of participants reported abstinence from alcohol, 48% (n = 200) reported drinking with problems, and 16% (n = 68) reported non-problem drinking. At each follow up, 16–21% of the sample reported non-problem drinking. Compared to individuals in the abstinent and problem-drinking groups, individuals who were drinking in a problem-free manner at 1 year had reported, at baseline, fewer days of intoxication, drinks per drinking day, alcohol dependence symptoms, and alcohol-related problems, less depression, and more adaptive coping mechanisms. Over time, 48% of participants who engaged in non-problem drinking at 1 year continued to report positive outcomes (either non-problem drinking or abstinence) throughout the long-term follow-up, whereas 77% of those abstaining at 1 year reported positive outcomes throughout the same time period. Additionally, 43% of individuals with problematic alcohol consumption at 1 year reported positive outcomes over the remaining follow-up interval, a rate that was not significantly different from the rate of positive outcomes of 48% observed in those with initial problem-free drinking.

Conclusions – Although some individuals report non-problem drinking a year after initially seeking help, this pattern of alcohol use is relatively infrequent and is less stable over time than is abstinence. An accurate understanding of the long-term course of alcohol use and problems could help shape expectations about the realistic probability of positive outcomes for individuals considering moderate drinking as a treatment goal.