Less drinking, yet more problems: Understanding African American drinking and related problems

Tamika C.B. Zapolski, Sarah L. Pedersen, Denis M. McCarthy, Gregory T. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

272 Scopus citations


Researchers have found that, compared to European Americans, African Americans report later initiation of drinking, lower rates of use, and lower levels of use across almost all age groups. Nevertheless, African Americans also have higher levels of alcohol problems than European Americans. After reviewing current data regarding these trends, we provide a theory to understand this apparent paradox as well as to understand variability in risk among African Americans. Certain factors appear to operate as both protective factors against heavy use and risk factors for negative consequences from use. For example, African American culture is characterized by norms against heavy alcohol use or intoxication, which protects against heavy use but also provides within-group social disapproval when use does occur. African Americans are more likely to encounter legal problems from drinking than European Americans, even at the same levels of consumption, perhaps thus resulting in reduced consumption but more problems from consumption. There appears to be one particular group of African Americans, low-income African American men, who are at the highest risk for alcoholism and related problems. We theorize that this effect is due to the complex interaction of residential discrimination, racism, age of drinking, and lack of available standard life reinforcers (e.g., stable employment and financial stability). Further empirical research will be needed to test our theories and otherwise move this important field forward. A focus on within-group variation in drinking patterns and problems is necessary. We suggest several new avenues of inquiry.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)188-223
Number of pages36
JournalPsychological Bulletin
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2014


  • African American
  • Alcohol problems
  • Alcohol use
  • Discrimination
  • Socioeconomic status

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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