NEW YORK - Does living near a bar encourage people to overindulge, or do heavy drinkers move to neighborhoods with easy access to alcohol? A new study suggests it may be the former for some people.
Researchers in Finland found that of nearly 55,000 Finnish adults followed for seven years, those who moved closer to bars were somewhat more likely to increase their drinking.
When a person moved one kilometer (0.6 mile) closer to a bar, the odds of becoming a heavy drinker rose 17%. A "heavy drinker" meant more than 10 ounces a week for men and about seven ounces a week for women, of distilled alcohol.
The link doesn't prove that mere distance from a bar turns people into alcohol abusers, according to the researchers.
"Factors other than proximity are also likely to explain the observed association," lead researcher Jaana L. Halonen, of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Kuopio, said in an email.
One possibility, she noted, is that drinkers choose to live near bars. But she and her colleagues also looked at a subset of people who didn't move - the bars came closer to them. And the findings were similar among those individuals, too, Halonen said.
The researchers also accounted for some other factors, like the neighborhood poverty level. (In Finland, Halonen said, lower-income people are more likely to drink heavily than wealthier people are.) And distance from a bar remained tied to the odds of becoming a heavy drinker.
The findings, reported in the journal Addiction, are based on surveys of 54,778 Finnish public employees who were followed over an average of seven years.
At the outset, there was a pattern of heavy drinking being more common when people lived close to bars, or restaurants or hotels with bars.
Among people who were an average of 0.12 kilometers (400 feet) from the nearest drinking hole, a little over 9% were heavy drinkers. Of those 2.4 kilometers (about 1.5 miles) away, some 7.5% were heavy drinkers.
When the researchers looked at patterns over time, it turned out that people who moved closer to bars - or had bars move closer to them - tended to have higher odds of becoming a heavy drinker.
The increased risk was modest. But at the population level, Halonen noted, even a modest association between access to bars and heavy drinking becomes "notable."
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a standard drink as a 1.5 ounce "shot" of 80-proof alcohol, five ounces of wine or eight ounces of beer - and considers heavy drinking to be an average of more than two drinks a day for men and one a day for women.
For any one person, of course, the risk of becoming a problem drinker depends on a whole range of factors, Halonen pointed out.
But, she added, it's possible that restricting bars' hours, or other alcohol retailers' operating hours, could limit locals' risky drinking.
Since the study was done in Finland, one question is how well the findings would apply to other countries. That's unclear, Halonen said, because drinking habits and "cultural norms" vary by country.
"For instance," she noted, "in the UK and Australia, heavy drinking is reported to be more common than in Finland, whereas in the USA it is less common."
"On the other hand," Halonen added, "it is unlikely that easy access to a bar would affect drinking only among Finnish employees."