What It Means to Say Boston Is America's 'Drunkest City'

A deeper look at the dubious honor bestowed by The Daily Beast.

Photo by Phil Dubois via Flickr

When The Daily Beast named us “America’s Drunkest City” for the second year in a row this week, we here at Boston were as interested as anyone else—which is to say, we were interested enough to share it with you and chuckle. But among the reactions we saw, there was a more emphatic, uniform glee, even a sense of pride. A BostInno writer declared herself “extremely proud,” in a rather long and entirely celebratory post. Reactions on Twitter ranged from “Good news!” to “I’ll drink to that.”

Of course, some of these joyful reactions are tinged with irony. But there are a few reasons why the rejoicing strikes us as a bit … unwarranted. There’s the glaringly obvious wet blanket (dry blanket?) reason, which is that binge drinking isn’t all that good for a city or its residents. It cost the economy $223.5 billion in 2006, according to the CDC, it’s linked to death by violence, car crash, suicide, etc., etc.

That’s probably why Mayor Tom Menino, when confronted with the survey results last year, responded to say, “Who is The Daily Beast? What is their credibility? I am the beast of the city and what I say goes. We are not the drunkest city in America.” First of all: hilarious. Second of all: you can see that no actual policymaker wants to claim this distinction.

“Whatever,” you are probably saying. “Stop being lame.” Fine. But a look at why Boston keeps performing so well still reveals that gloating about our big win remains sort of unwarranted. As with any internet ranking, the one-line takeaway that makes headlines—”Boston is America’s drunkest city!”—masks a lot of nuance. 

The Daily Beast gave 50 percent of its weighting to data it borrowed from a market research firm, which surveyed people to calculate how many drinks the average person imbibes every month. Boston came in ahead of all the other cities (we tied with D.C.) on the list with 15.6 drinks. This doesn’t necessarily tell us a whole lot about how “drunk” we get because it doesn’t speak to how we consume those drinks. We could just be leading the way in having a casual glass of red wine every other night. (It’s good for the heart!) There’s also not a whole lot of range to that statistic among the 25 cities at the top. Burlington residents, who came in 25th, drink 13.2 drinks per month on average. Sure, we drink 2.4 more. But while we might be winning, we’re not exactly the drunk uncles at America’s wedding, 16 drinks ahead of everyone else and making an ass of ourselves.

To figure out how we consume all those drinks we have every month, The Daily Beast balanced out the marketing stats with the CDC’s data on binge drinking and heavy drinking, both of which tell us whether we drink a lot in one sitting. (For men, “binge drinking” is consuming five drinks in one go. For women, it’s four.)  Now we’re getting to the question of whether we get “drunkest,” and indeed, Boston led the way with 20.1 percent classified as binge drinkers. But when we elevate Boston above others with our “We’re number 1, we’re number 1” chants, we diminish the fact that binge drinking is a nearly uniform national past time. Nation-wide, 17.1 percent of people get the “binge drinker” classification. Nor are we even number 1 on The Daily Beast’s list for that stat. Cleveland comes in at 20.5 percent.  Boston comes in above average, but again, we’re not America’s drunk uncle. People binge drink everywhere, and they don’t do so much less than we do.

Also, there’s a problem with looking only at the rate of people classified as binge drinkers. The CDC warns us against letting states with lower rates off the hook. “Binge drinking is a problem in all states, even in states with fewer binge drinkers, because they are binging more often and in larger amounts.” That stat seems weird, but it’s true. For instance: Kentucky has a lower percentage of binge drinkers than Massachusetts. But the average number of drinks there is 8.4. Here it’s 7.6. Their average number of “episodes” per month is higher too.  That’s like comparing a party where one-fourth of the people are sporting a heavy buzz to one where slightly less than a fourth are flat-out wasted (for the second time that week.) Which group is “drunker?” Does it matter?

A look at demographics offers pretty obvious explanations for why Boston ranks highly on the binge drinking rates. Looking at the CDC data, you’ll find that young people binge drink at much higher rates than older people. People with incomes above $75,000 binge drink at higher rates than those below. People with a college education binge drink at higher rates than those without. Boston being a hub of higher education, and thus a hub of younger residents and wealth, it’s not shocking at all to find that we score high on the binge drinking.

So feel free to hit the bars tonight and proudly proclaim that Boston is America’s drunkest city. By this one measure, it is. And it’s fun enough, as statistics gleaned from internet slideshows go. Just know that heavy drinking isn’t really what separates us from our countrymen. It’s what bonds us to them.