The stereotype of the alcoholic Native American is as pervasive as it is pernicious. Research on Native American drinking habits, however, has largely examined particular tribes or geographic areas, not the broader population, and drinking in the broader Native American population has not been compared with that in whites, the largest racial group in the country. To test whether Native Americans truly consume alcohol more than whites do, researchers at the University of Arizona analyzed data on drinking from two annual government surveys of U.S. residents, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2009 to 2013) and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (2011 to 2013), both of which rely on self-reported race or ethnicity and drinking habits. Combined survey data yielded almost 26,000 responses from Native Americans and more than 1 million responses from whites. (Both surveys included respondents of other races and ethnicities.)
The study analysis showed that Native Americans and whites differed by less than one percentage point in the “heavy drinking” and “binge drinking” categories and that significantly more Native Americans than whites abstained from alcohol completely. Overall, the findings indicate that Native American alcohol consumption is similar to or lower than that of whites. The authors suggest that knowledge of these data may help to counter one stereotype Native Americans face and lead to higher-quality care and research.
Margaret P. Moss, associate professor, School of Nursing, and assistant dean of diversity and inclusion at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has witnessed such stigmatization when working with Native Americans over her nursing career. But the study's reliance on nationwide self-reported survey data may have obscured serious conditions within particular tribes or geographic areas, she says. “Huge variations exist by tribe and region,” she adds, “and phone survey methodology will contact only those American Indians with a phone.” She emphasizes that “concern, funding, and programming should never be altered on the basis of one study.”
The study authors note that the rate of liver disease among Native Americans is about four times that among whites. If their rates of alcohol consumption are indeed comparable to or lower than those in whites, further research should focus on the reasons for the disparity. In addition, it is important to recognize that poverty and inadequate access to care make the treatment of addiction more difficult for Native Americans to obtain.—Lucy Wang Halpern
Cunningham JK, et al. Drug Alcohol Depend 2016 160 12 65–75