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University graduates and those with higher levels of income in Canada were less likely to be heavy drinkers, unlike in the U.S. ((Toby Talbot/Associated Press))

Affluent, highly educated and tech-savvy young adults are more likely to engage in binge drinking than many of their peers who are older, poorer and less educated, a new study suggests.

A cluster identified as "Cyber Millennials" — well-educated, tech-savvy individuals aged 25 to 44 with a median income of more than $79,000 US — was most likely to binge drink, according to findings that was published online recently by the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

They live in urban fringe areas on the West Coast and Middle Atlantic regions of the United States, the study said.

While Cyber Millennials led the pack in risky levels of alcohol consumption, their other lifestyle habits ranked them among the most health-conscious segments of the population, and they had a lower-than-average smoking rate.

"They own bicycles, they buy organic foods, and they're extremely health-conscious, but they engage in this rather health-destructive behaviour of binge drinking at least twice a month, and that's fairly ironic from our perspective," said study co-author Dr. Howard Moss, associate director for clinical and translational research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Research co-authored by the U.S.-based institute examined results of an annual phone survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control linked to 2004 census-tracked information about risky health practices of American citizens.

The CDC information was merged with widespread data collected from a marketing research firm, including household financial data and music preferences. From that, researchers identified 10 market segments or "clusters" most likely to take part in high-risk drinking.

Surprised about age

The researchers found that 12.4 per cent of Cyber Millennials — more than 314,000 people — reported having five or more drinks on one occasion at least twice over the course of 30 days — which was double the U.S. national average (6.1. per cent).

What's more, half of the 10 clusters comprised young adults.

"When one thinks of heavy drinkers, at least in the United States, we typically think of 40-something males that have martinis at lunchtime and go home and relax with a few shots … so we were surprised about the age of some of the groups," said Moss.

However, Moss said the study findings are consistent with recent research to come out of NIAAA national surveys. While alcohol dependence has always been viewed as a disorder of middle age, 20-somethings represent the highest proportion of alcohol-dependent individuals in the U.S., he said.

It's a similar story north of the border, according to the 2004 Canadian Addiction Survey, which found those aged 18 to 24 who had consumed alcohol in the past year had the highest percentages when it came to weekly heavy drinking. Heavy drinking was defined as having five or more drinks on one occasion for men, and four or more drinks for women.

The survey found 16.1 per cent of 18-to 19-year-olds and 14.9 per cent of 20-to 24-year-olds engaged in heavy weekly drinking.

However, unlike the U.S. findings, university graduates and those with higher levels of income were less likely to be heavy drinkers.

Outreach potential

Moss said many Cyber Millennials in the U.S. may be continuing drinking patterns established in their late teens and early 20s, and that the affluence of group members allows them to be able to pay for multiple drinks in a bar or club.

The study noted that NIAAA has research suggesting that youth benefit most from early outreach, and that their behaviours "are less entrenched than adults so [they are] more amenable to change."

Study authors also proposed potential ways to target high-risk youth drinkers, such as including an internet component in prevention outreach strategies since they have a higher-than-average rate of internet use.

One way to reach Cyber Millennials would be to create a targeted media campaign emphasizing health, such as alternating alcoholic drinks for bottled water, of which they are already "huge consumers," Moss said.

He said the hope would be to then take advantage of their consumer habits and link them to the health message, giving them an opportunity to perhaps alter their behaviour in a positive direction.

Dr. Robert Mann, senior scientist in public health and regulatory policy at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said the findings could represent important research for people interested in preventing alcohol abuse.

"The challenge in substance abuse prevention research has been to try to understand how one might best target prevention efforts to particular audiences that would be receptive and benefit from those kinds of efforts," Mann said.

"This study, I think, is the first that I'm aware of that is really using techniques from marketing research that do exactly that — that identify important and relatively homogenous subgroups of the population for marketing purposes."

"This approach to substance abuse prevention by market segmentation analysis could be a very, very promising strategy," he added.