Some 4.65 percent of the adult population reported alcohol abuse in 2001-2002, up from 3.03 percent a decade earlier, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported.
During the same period, the share of the population who were judged to be alcoholics slipped from 4.38 percent to 3.81 percent of people aged 18 and over, the institute said.
"What is surprising, then, is that the prevalence of alcohol abuse increased in the face of slightly declining rates of heavy drinking," said the research team led by Bridget F. Grant of the institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
"That alcohol abuse seems to be increasing presents intriguing questions," she said.
Alcohol abuse, which increased, is defined as drinking-related failure to fulfill major obligations at work, school or home, interpersonal social or legal problems and drinking in hazardous situations.
Alcoholism, which declined, is characterized by compulsive drinking, preoccupation with drinking and tolerance to alcohol.
Combined, alcohol abuse and alcoholism affected 17.6 million Americans in 2001-2002, up from 13.8 million in 1991-1992.
Alcoholism declined over the decade in males, from 6.33 percent to 5.42 percent, and in females from 2.58 percent to 2.32 percent.
The increase in alcohol abuse was noted across many groups, minorities in particular.
"A group that showed an especially sharp increase was young adult Asian males, a group that has not previously attracted attention as being at elevated risk for alcohol use disorders," the researchers said. The rate for Asian males jumped from 1.65 percent to 3.20 percent, with almost all the increase between the ages of 18 and 44.
While the overall alcohol abuse rate jumped from 3.03 percent to 4.65 percent, it rose from 3.33 percent to 5.1 percent for whites; climbed from 1.46 percent to 3.29 percent for blacks; declined from 8.14 percent to 5.75 percent for American Indians; rose from 1.08 percent to 2.13 percent for Asians; and climbed from 2.52 percent to 3.97 percent for Latinos.
By age, overall alcohol abuse rose from 6.54 percent to 6.95 percent for people age 18-29 and from 3.02 percent to 5.95 percent for ages 30-44. For ages 45 to 64 it was up from 1.35 percent to 3.54 percent, and it rose from 0.25 percent to 1.21 percent for those 65 and older.
For alcoholism, the rate fell from 4.38 percent to 3.81 percent. For whites it dropped from 4.35 percent to 3.83 percent; it edged down from 3.84 percent to 3.57 percent for blacks; among Indians, it declined from 9.01 percent to 6.35 percent; for Asians it edged upward from 2.26 percent to 2.41 percent; and for Latinos, the rate declined from 5.78 percent to 3.95 percent.
The alcoholism rate fell from 9.4 percent to 9.24 percent for those aged 18 to 24; from 4.25 percent to 3.77 percent for ages 25 to 44; from 2.12 percent to 1.89 percent for ages 45 to 64; and from 0.39 percent to 0.24 percent for those 65 and older.
The study, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, is based on interviews with 43,093 people in 2001-2002. The results were compared with a similar study in 1991-1992.