PRINCETON, NJ -- More than one in three Americans (36%) say drinking alcohol has been a cause of problems in their family at some point, one of the highest figures Gallup has measured since the 1940s. Reports of alcohol-related family troubles have been much more common in recent decades than they were prior to 1990.
Gallup updated its longstanding trend on this question in its July 7-10 Consumption Habits poll. When first asked in 1947, 15% of Americans said alcohol had been a cause of family problems. The percentage remained low in the 1960s and 1970s, before it ticked up -- to an average of 21% -- during the 1980s.
Reports of family problems due to drinking increased further in the 1990s (27%) and 2000s (32%). The average has leveled off at 32% since 2010, although this year's 36% exceeds the current decade's average.
The increase in reported alcohol-related family problems is not due to an increase in drinking among Americans. Since the 1980s, an average of between 62% and 64% of U.S. adults have reported that they drink alcohol on occasion.
Moreover, the frequency with which U.S. drinkers consume alcohol has declined slightly. During the 1980s, an average of 66% of U.S. drinkers reported having one or more drinks in the past seven days, compared with 64% since 2010. Also, the percentage of drinkers reporting having eight or more alcoholic drinks in the past week has declined from an average of 17% during the 1980s to 13% in the current decade.
Thus, it may just be that those who drink are now more likely to do so in a manner that creates problems in their family than in the past. However, other societal factors may have helped cause the increase as well.
First, Americans have a greater understanding and awareness of alcoholism than in the past, and thus there is less of a social stigma attached to it. As such, families who have dealt with alcoholism may be more open about their experiences, and more likely to disclose that information in a survey. Also, in recent decades there has been greater attention paid to alcohol-related crimes, and stricter enforcement of drunken driving-related laws -- thus, alcohol-related legal troubles may be more common, pushing up the percentage reporting family troubles. Finally, media attention to "binge drinking" and alcohol-related deaths among young adults may have increased public awareness of newer types of problems stemming from overdrinking.
In recent Gallup surveys, there have been few consistent differences by key demographic groups in the percentage reporting alcohol-related trouble in their family, including by gender, age, education, income, political affiliation, or church attendance.
Drinking Rates Lower Among Those Experiencing Family Troubles
One consistent difference Gallup has found in recent years is that the percentage of Americans who say they drink alcohol varies by whether they report alcohol being a cause of family problems. In Gallup's 2013 and 2014 Consumption Habits surveys, an average of 49% of Americans who say drinking has been a source of family problems say they drink alcohol on occasion. Among those who report no such trouble, a higher average of 66% say they drink.
Gallup also found higher rates of abstinence from alcohol among those who say drinking has been a source of family problems in surveys prior to 2013. That relationship persists even when controlling for factors that predict drinking such as age, gender, education, and church attendance.
These results merely indicate a relationship between past family troubles and current drinking behavior. They cannot, however, establish that those who have experienced alcohol-related problems firsthand intentionally avoid drinking as a consequence, although that would be one potential explanation for the relationship. It is also possible that those who abstain from alcohol may be more likely to characterize incidents arising from alcohol consumption as "trouble" than those who drink.
In more than seven decades of tracking Americans' drinking behavior, one of the major changes Gallup has seen is an increasing percentage of Americans saying alcohol has caused problems in their family. Though it still remains a minority of the population, the percentage reporting such trouble has more than doubled since the 1970s.
The increase in alcohol-related family troubles may be one factor in Americans' reluctance to lower the drinking age to 18. And while greater awareness of alcohol-related troubles, in addition to an actual increase in the behavior, may be driving up the percentage who report family troubles due to alcohol, the trend does not suggest that the U.S. is making progress curbing some of the problems associated with alcohol use.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted July 7-10, 2014, with a random sample of 1,013 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the most recent Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the most recent National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the most recent U.S. census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.