Alcohol & Religiosity in the United States, and the West Virginia Exception

Maps of alcohol consumption in the United States reveal several regions with very low drinking rates. The most prominent is the LDS (Mormon) cultural region focused on Utah and eastern Idaho. The so-called Bible Belt of the southeastern and south-central states is also clearly visible, although most of its coastal counties are excluded. More surprising are several heavily Native American counties in the northern Great Plains and Southwest. Many tribal governments restrict alcohol sales, but actual consumption rates may be higher than the map indicates. Comparing the maps posted here, several indigenous-dominated counties in South Dakota are shown as having low rates of alcohol drinking but relatively high rates of heaving drinking.

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In general, high rates of adherence to religious demoninations that oppose alcohol consumption are associated with low rates of drinking. Lyman Stone, in a fantastic, map-rich post called “Mapping American Churches,” makes this point by juxtaposing a map of “anti-alcohol religious attendance rate” with one showing the prevalence of heavy drinking. As he bluntly notes, “Turns out religious opposition to drinking reduces drinking. Surprise.”

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But although this correlation is striking if unsurprising, interesting – and surprising – exceptions can be found. The most prominent is the central Appalachian region, focused on West Virginia. West Virginia reports very low rates of alcohol consumption and abuse – lower than those of any other state except Utah according to some sources. Yet West Virginia has only a middling level of membership in anti-alcohol churches. It also has a very low rate of overall religious adherence (according to data from 2000).

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Several explanations have been offered for West Virginia’s official rate of alcohol consumption. One is the state’s high level of opioid abuse, as revealed by a 2015 map of overdose deaths.  Another is the prevalence of illicit and untaxed alcohol (“moonshine”) that escapes tabulation.

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A 2019 article in the Exponent Telegram (Clarksburg, WV) expressed some doubt about the state’s reported level of alcohol use. While acknowledging that West Virginia “ranks the lowest in the nation for adult prevalence of both heavy drinking and binge drinking …[and] has been either the lowest or second lowest for many years,” the article went on to note that:

In the period from 2003 to 2012, the most recent data available, 1,092 people died in West Virginia due to crashes involving a driver with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher. That rate, 12.9 per 100,000 population, is well above the national average rate of 6.7 for the same time period.

Although I doubt that West Virginia has one of the lowest alcohol-consumption rates in the United States, it would seem to be lower than one might expect given the state’s history, economic conditions, and relatively low rates of membership in anti-alcohol churches.