Alcohol Is a Really Serious Drug

July 16, 2015 | By

Drinking your drug isn’t any better than smoking or shooting it

Here’s a real pet peeve of Dr. Brown’s: the phrase “alcohol and drugs.” Alcohol is, in fact, a drug. Yet alcoholism is segregated from other addictive behaviors in our language, both formally and informally.

There’s the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). The National Clearing House for Alcohol and Drug Information. And many an “alcohol and drug treatment center.” Police forms refer to “alcohol and/or drugs.”

Dr. Brown, a former AA member, recalls people in the Program saying, “Oh no, I didn’t take drugs. I just drank.”

The correct phrasing is “alcohol and other drugs” or “drugs, including alcohol.”

Legally and Socially Acceptable, But . . .

It is arguably a convenient oversight, one that reflects alcohol’s legality and social acceptability. It fosters the specific illusion that addiction to alcohol is somehow not as serious as addiction to other drugs, and the general illusion that the various addictions are fundamentally different. Addiction is addiction.

The dilemma of course is that if NCADD or anyone else refers only to “drugs,” most people will not imagine that they are talking about alcohol. Nor would we want to lose sight of the size of the alcohol problem relative to other drugs. The NCADD writes this on its website:

One of the most significant challenges faced by NCADD . . . is putting the problems of alcohol and [other] drugs into a perspective that the general public can understand. When alcohol is combined into any discussion about other drugs, the general public, the media and policy makers tend to focus on the more dramatic issues of the illegal drugs or just drinking and driving, as if it is the only alcohol-related problem.

Alcohol Does More Damage

In 2010 alcohol caused nearly a third of all US vehicle fatalities. But it’s also associated with violence, child abuse and neglect, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic lung diseases, diabetes, and absenteeism in the workplace.

Illegal drugs are indeed a big drama: the US “war on drugs” wages on to the tune of $51 billion annually. And a gun-toting gangsta dealing on dark dirty streets makes for better TV than a mild-mannered office worker slumped under the mood lighting of a wine bar. But the fact is, alcohol affects many more lives than all other drugs combined.

NCADD cites a study that put the number of people in the United States with “past-year dependence” on alcohol at 7.9 million; the number for all illegal drugs combined was 1.6 million. Worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, there are 2.5 million alcohol-related deaths annually. A few findings from that report:

  • Nearly 4 percent of all deaths worldwide are related to alcohol
  • 9 percent of all deaths worldwide among people age 15 to 29 are alcohol-related
  • Alcohol is the third biggest risk factor for disease burden worldwide, behind only being underweight in childhood and unsafe sex; it’s a bigger risk factor that unsafe water, high blood pressure, tobacco use, and illegal drugs, the latter coming in way down the list at number 18

For all the attention that it does get, via AA, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and other organizations, not to mention the Lindsay Lohans and Nurse Jackies of the world, it would seem that alcohol is still the elephant in the room.

See the glossary: Addiction

Photo: Thanks, Rob Bertholf (via Flickr)

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