Can Your Smartphone Fix Your Drinking Problem?

Credit Rashad Mahmood

Credit Rashad Mahmood

  • Ed Williams
  • Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Lots of people enjoy a beer or a glass of wine after work. Or maybe two glasses, or three. But at what point do everyday drinking habits become a drinking problem?

That’s a question a lot of people have, and one a growing number of websites and smartphone apps claim to help people answer.

I’ve always considered myself to be a moderate drinker. I’m a huge craft beer fan, I brew my own beer at home, and nothing tastes better to me on a hot day than a cold IPA.

So when I sat down at the computer to sign up for an online program claiming to give me tools  find out if I should change my drinking habits, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The website I decided on, called Checkup and Choices, starts out with a survey of my habits. I answered a bunch of questions about how much I drink, family history, and if drinking has affected my relationships. It also asked me to set some goals while I’m using the program, so I decided on a modest one: to abstain from any booze two nights per week.

And then, I just went about my business as usual and logged my drinks on my phone as I went.

Three beers at the bar with friends, one at home after work, a whisky here, a couple more beers there, and six weeks later I sat down with Reid Hester, a doctor and researcher in Albuquerque who created the Checkup and Choices program, to go over my results.

“It looks pretty good,” Hester told me. “I would say that you are at minimal risk of experiencing any alcohol related problems as a result of this.”

Source: New Mexico Department of Health Credit Rashad Mahmood

Source: New Mexico Department of Health
Credit Rashad Mahmood

Turns out I usually have around one or two drinks a night, or 12 drinks a week, which is less than most drinkers my age. I found my weakness too: teetotaling two days out of the week was a little trickier than I thought. I didn’t do it sometimes.

But what about the thousands of people in New Mexico who do have serious drinking issues, and need help quitting or cutting back? Would a solitary, web-based program like this be enough to steer them to help?

I put that question to Ron, who I met at an AA meeting in Rio Rancho (Ron wouldn’t give his last name because Alcoholics Anonymous members have to stay, well, anonymous). We sat down at a table in a back room and he proudly showed me a bronze coin that symbolizes his 44th year of sobriety.

“I think the doctors, the psychiatrists, the medical profession, I don’t think they really have a clue,” Ron said, because you can’t really help an alcoholic unless you’ve been through it yourself. It takes a community of people going through the same struggle helping each other out.

I took my smartphone out of my pocket and showed Ron the checkup and choices page I’d been using.

“Would something like this have worked for you?” I asked.

“No,” he said without hesitation. “Because I could not be honest. Let’s say there’s 30 people out here. I bet you 90 percent of those people did not walk in here voluntarily. They walked in here because of a judge, because of a court.”

“There’s really no one approach that works best for everybody,” Dr. Hester countered. “This is just one approach. It’s one that can be helpful to many people, but not everybody.”

Hester said for people like Ron, maybe an online program is not the way to go. But he said the research shows most people are actually more honest about their drinking when they’re talking to a computer. About one out of seven people in New Mexico are heavy drinkers or binge drinkers, and Dr. Hester said we need to evolve our thinking on treatment for those people too, instead of focusing on alcoholics alone.

“The data, the epidemiological data on heavy drinking and the cost to society are huge,” he said. Those costs come mostly in the form of DWI’s, and lost productivity. And Hester said the vast majority of people who are incurring these costs to society are not full-blown alcoholics.

“They’re the heavy drinkers and binge drinkers who are generating these costs to society, and they’re not the ones going to treatment,” he said.

For heavy drinkers, binge drinkers, or even people like me who just want to see where they stand with their drinking habits, Hester said even a little nudge from a drink tracker or other program could be enough for someone to reconsider their alcohol consumption.

And I have to admit, even though I didn’t get any life-changing revelations from monitoring my own drinking online, it did make me think about my habits—and just taking notes as I enjoyed a cold one made me feel strangely in control.

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KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg FoundationCon Alma Health Foundation andMcCune Charitable Foundation. Find more info on our site, publichealthnm.org.

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