archived

Final Recommendation Statement

Alcohol Misuse: Screening and Counseling, 2004

April 06, 2004

Recommendations made by the USPSTF are independent of the U.S. government. They should not be construed as an official position of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This Recommendation is out of date

It has been replaced by the following: Unhealthy Alcohol Use in Adolescents and Adults: Screening and Behavioral Counseling Interventions (2018)

Recommendation Summary

Population Recommendation Grade
Adults, including pregnant women The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends screening and behavioral counseling interventions to reduce alcohol misuse (go to Clinical Considerations) by adults, including pregnant women, in primary care settings. Rationale: The USPSTF found good evidence that screening in primary care settings can accurately identify patients whose levels or patterns of alcohol consumption do not meet criteria for alcohol dependence, but place them at risk for increased morbidity and mortality, and good evidence that brief behavioral counseling interventions with follow-up produce small to moderate reductions in alcohol consumption that are sustained over 6- to 12-month periods or longer. (See Appendix Table 2 for a description of the USPSTF classification of levels of evidence.) The USPSTF found some evidence that interventions lead to positive health outcomes 4 or more years post-intervention, but found limited evidence that screening and behavioral counseling reduce alcohol-related morbidity. The evidence on the effectiveness of counseling to reduce alcohol consumption during pregnancy is limited; however, studies in the general adult population show that behavioral counseling interventions are effective among women of childbearing age. The USPSTF concluded that the benefits of behavioral counseling interventions to reduce alcohol misuse by adults outweigh any potential harms. B
Adolescents The USPSTF concludes that the evidence is insufficient to recommend for or against screening and behavioral counseling interventions to prevent or reduce alcohol misuse by adolescents in primary care settings. Rationale: The USPSTF found limited evidence evaluating the effectiveness of screening and behavioral counseling interventions in primary care settings to prevent or reduce alcohol misuse by adolescents. The USPSTF concluded that the evidence is insufficient to assess the potential benefits and harms of screening and behavioral counseling interventions in this population. I

Additional Information

Recommendation Information

Table of Contents PDF Version and JAMA Link Archived Versions

Full Recommendation:

Recommendations made by the USPSTF are independent of the U.S. government. They should not be construed as an official position of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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This statement summarizes the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommendations on behavioral counseling interventions to reduce alcohol misuse in primary care patients and updates the 1996 recommendations on this topic. The complete information on which this statement is based, including evidence tables and references, is available in the accompanying article in this issue and in the systematic evidence review on this topic. The complete USPSTF recommendation statement (which includes a brief review of the supporting evidence), the accompanying journal article, and the complete systematic evidence review are available through the USPSTF Web site (www.preventiveservicestaskforce.org/). 

This USPSTF recommendation was first published in Annals of Internal Medicine on April 6, 2004: Ann Intern Med. 2004;140(7):555–557.

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  • Alcohol misuse includes “risky/hazardous” and “harmful” drinking that places individuals at risk for future problems. “Risky” or “hazardous” drinking has been defined in the United States as more than 7 drinks per week or more than 3 drinks per occasion for women, and more than 14 drinks per week or more than 4 drinks per occasion for men. “Harmful drinking” describes persons who are currently experiencing physical, social, or psychological harm from alcohol use but do not meet criteria for dependence.1,2 Alcohol abuse and dependence are associated with repeated negative physical, psychological, and social effects from alcohol.3 The USPSTF did not evaluate the effectiveness of interventions for alcohol dependence because the benefits of these interventions are well established and referral or specialty treatment is recommended for those meeting the diagnostic criteria for dependence.
  • Light to moderate alcohol consumption in middle-aged or older adults has been associated with some health benefits, such as reduced risk for coronary heart disease.4 Moderate drinking has been defined as 2 standard drinks (e.g., 12 ounces of beer) or less per day for men and 1 drink or less per day for women and persons older than 65,5 but recent data suggest comparable benefits from as little as 1 drink 3 to 4 times a week.6
  • The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) is the most studied screening tool for detecting alcohol-related problems in primary care settings. It is sensitive for detecting alcohol misuse and abuse or dependence and can be used alone or embedded in broader health risk or lifestyle assessments.7,8 The 4-item CAGE (feeling the need to Cut down, Annoyed by criticism, Guilty about drinking, and need for an Eye-opener in the morning) is the most popular screening test for detecting alcohol abuse or dependence in primary care.9 The TWEAK, a 5-item scale, and the T-ACE are designed to screen pregnant women for alcohol misuse. They detect lower levels of alcohol consumption that may pose risks during pregnancy.10 Clinicians can choose screening strategies that are appropriate for their clinical population and setting.8,11–14 Screening tools are available at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Web site: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/.
  • Effective interventions to reduce alcohol misuse include an initial counseling session of about 15 minutes, feedback, advice, and goal-setting. Most also include further assistance and follow-up. Multi-contact interventions for patients ranging widely in age (12–75 years) are shown to reduce mean alcohol consumption by 3 to 9 drinks per week, with effects lasting up to 6 to 12 months after the intervention. They can be delivered wholly or in part in the primary care setting, and by one or more members of the health care team, including physician and non-physician practitioners. Resources that help clinicians deliver effective interventions include brief provider training or access to specially trained primary care practitioners or health educators, and the presence of office-level systems supports (prompts, reminders, counseling algorithms, and patient education materials).
  • Primary care screening and behavioral counseling interventions for alcohol misuse can be described with reference to the 5-As behavioral counseling framework: assess alcohol consumption with a brief screening tool followed by clinical assessment as needed; advise patients to reduce alcohol consumption to moderate levels; agree on individual goals for reducing alcohol use or abstinence (if indicated); assist patients with acquiring the motivations, self-help skills, or supports needed for behavior change; and arrange follow-up support and repeated counseling, including referring dependent drinkers for specialty treatment.15 Common practices that complement this framework include motivational interviewing,16 the 5 Rs used to treat tobacco use,17 and assessing readiness to change.18
  • The optimal interval for screening and intervention is unknown. Patients with past alcohol problems, young adults, and other high-risk groups (e.g., smokers) may benefit most from frequent screening.
  • All pregnant women and women contemplating pregnancy should be informed of the harmful effects of alcohol on the fetus. Safe levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy are not known; therefore, pregnant women are advised to abstain from drinking alcohol. More research into the efficacy of primary care screening and behavioral intervention for alcohol misuse among pregnant women is needed.
  • The benefits of behavioral intervention for preventing or reducing alcohol misuse in adolescents are not known. The CRAFFT questionnaire was recently validated for screening adolescents for substance abuse in the primary care setting.19 The benefits of screening this population will need to be evaluated as more effective interventions become available in the primary care setting.
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Professional groups such as the American Medical Association (AMA) (www.ama-assn.org), the American Society of Addiction Medicine (www.asam.org), and the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care (https://canadiantaskforce.ca/) recommend routine screening for alcohol misuse in primary care and brief counseling interventions for individuals who screen positive. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (http://acog.org/) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend counseling all women who are pregnant or are planning pregnancy about the harmful effects of drinking to the fetus and that abstinence is the safest policy. The AAP and the AMA guidelines for Adolescent Preventive Services recommend that clinicians routinely screen children and adolescents for alcohol use and advise patients to abstain from alcohol. The AAP also recommends that physicians discuss the hazards of alcohol and other drug use with parents during routine risk behavior assessment.

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Members of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force are Alfred O. Berg, MD, MPH, Chair (University of Washington, Seattle, Washington); Janet D. Allan, PhD, RN, CS, Vice-Chair (University of Maryland Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland); Paul Frame, MD (Tri-County Family Medicine, Cohocton, and University of Rochester, Rochester, New York); Charles J. Homer, MD, MPH (National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality, Boston, Massachusetts); Mark S. Johnson, MD, MPH (University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey–New Jersey Medical School, Newark, New Jersey); Jonathan D. Klein, MD, MPH (University of Rochester School of Medicine, Rochester, New York); Tracy A. Lieu, MD, MPH (Harvard Pilgrim Health
Care and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts); C. Tracy Orleans, PhD (The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey); Jeffrey F. Peipert, MD, MPH (Women and Infants’ Hospital, Providence, Rhode Island); Nola J. Pender, PhD, RN (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan); Albert L. Siu, MD, MSPH (Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, New York); Steven M. Teutsch, MD, MPH (Merck & Co., Inc., West Point, Pennsylvania); Carolyn Westhoff, MD, MSc (Columbia University, New York, New York); and Steven H. Woolf, MD, MPH (Virginia Commonwealth
University, Fairfax, Virginia). This list includes members of the Task Force at the time this recommendation was finalized. For a list of current Task Force members, go to www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Name/our-members.

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11. Babor TF, Higgins-Biddle JC. Brief Intervention for Hazardous and Harmful Drinking. A Manual for Use in Primary Care. World Health Organization; 2001.
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15. Whitlock EP, Orleans CT, Pender N, Allan J. Evaluating primary care behavioral counseling interventions. An evidence-based approach. Am J Prev Med. 2002;22(4):267–284. [PMID: 11988383]
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