Are lifetime abstainers the best control group in alcohol epidemiology? On the stability and validity of reported lifetime abstention

Am J Epidemiol. 2008 Oct 15;168(8):866-71. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwn093. Epub 2008 Aug 12.


Lifetime abstainers have often been recommended as the comparison group in alcohol epidemiology. The objective of this study was to provide insight into the validity and stability of lifetime abstention by using data derived from the National Alcohol Survey, a national probability survey of US households conducted in 1984, and its 2 follow-up surveys conducted in 1990 and 1992. Results indicated that more than half (52.9%; all proportions were weighted to represent the US population) of those who reported never having a drink of any alcoholic beverage in the 1992 survey reported drinking in previous surveys. Depending on assumptions, this difference may result in an underestimation of alcohol-attributable mortality of 2%-15% in men and 2%-22% in women. Sociodemographic factors differentiated those who consistently reported lifetime abstention across surveys from the rest of the study population. Results suggest that using reported lifetime abstainers as a sole comparison group is problematic, especially if reporting is based on 1 measurement only. Establishing multiple measurement points and including irregular lifetime light drinkers with lifetime abstainers as the comparison group are recommended for future epidemiologic studies.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology*
  • Control Groups*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Time Factors