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Short-Term Course of Drinking in an Untreated Sample of At-Risk Drinkers

Brenda M. Booth, Stacy M. Fortney, John C. Fortney, Geoff M. Curran, Joann E. Kirchner

Objective: We know little about the short-term course of drinking, particularly the stability or instability of at-risk drinking in untreated drinkers. Because few at-risk drinkers obtain help for their drinking, it is important to understand the short-term fluctuations between at-risk drinking and full-fledged alcohol use disorders, as well as remission of at-risk drinking. Method: We used four waves of data (each 6 months apart) from a probability community sample of 733 at-risk drinkers in six states in the southern United States to determine variation in abstinence, drinking patterns and alcohol use disorders over a 2-year period. For this analysis, we excluded those who reported receiving services for drinking during the 2-year study period (retrospectively at baseline), leaving a sample size of 664 (444 male); 479 (306 male) completed all four interviews. Results: Although the majority (88%) of the sample was nonabstinent throughout the study, we found significant decreases in average number of drinks per drinking day and recent (past 6 months) alcohol disorders, and an increase in 6-month abstinence. Almost 30% of those with no recent alcohol disorder at baseline (n = 280) later met diagnostic criteria in at least one interview. Of those with a recent alcohol disorder at baseline (n = 199), one third met criteria in at least two subsequent interviews. Conclusions: There is some evidence for short-term progression from at-risk drinking to alcohol disorder. However, there is stronger evidence for declining problems and a fluctuation in and out of recovery and relapse, which may reflect an effort to maintain controlled drinking. Understanding this short-term course is important for primary and secondary prevention efforts and for screening of at-risk drinking in primary care and in the workplace. (J. Stud. Alcohol 62: 580-588, 2001)