Alcohol is the most widely used drug for recreational purposes in the United States. Ironically, many people don’t even consider alcohol to be a drug. When many people think of drug abuse, they think only of those who take drugs that are against the law, such as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamine. However, a drug is a drug regardless of its legal status, and like all drugs, alcohol can be abused.
Alcohol is sold for recreational consumption in a large number of forms. A seemingly endless array of beverages is sold containing alcohol, ranging from beers to wines to whiskey, bourbon, gin and vodka. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of Americans consume alcoholic drinks to some degree, although most do so in moderation. However, a minority of problem drinkers manage to create an enormous amount of social and health problems. One telling statistic illustrating the out of proportion influence of problem drinkers about their size is the fact that only ten percent of the drinking population consumes half the total amount of alcohol in America.
Just because problem drinkers make up only ten percent of those who drink doesn’t mean their numbers are insignificant. One out of every 12 adults, or 14 million people, abuse alcohol to the point where it becomes a problem. There are at least several million more whose drinking could be defined as borderline abusive. Three million are teenagers, and an equal number are elderly. In all about seven percent of the total adult population of the United States has a drinking problem. The impact of problem drinking in America is enormous and goes far beyond just the immediate effects on the alcoholic drinker.
Most people use alcohol socially, meaning they use the drug when interacting with others. This interaction usually occurs with people who are also drinking. The use of alcohol can be casual, having no particular purpose beyond socializing, but in many cases, it is tied to certain occasions such as holidays, birthdays and other special events or achievements. Because of this social dimension to using alcohol, people who drink alone are often considered to be exhibiting signs of problem drinking. Many experts on alcoholism consider drinking alcohol by oneself to be one of the warning signs of an existing or developing alcohol problem.
Because people under the influence of alcohol tend to become lively, talkative and outgoing, many people don’t realize that alcohol is a depressant. The lively behavior is usually short lived, soon followed by a listless, groggy and even sleepy demeanor. Thinking is slowed down, and judgment becomes impaired. The kind of perception and co-ordination necessary to drive a car is distorted, which is why drinking and traffic accidents are so often linked. While a little alcohol acts as a temporary stimulant, continued drinking soon brings out its depressive qualities.
The impaired mental functioning caused by alcohol is usually only temporary. The impairment lasts only until one stops drinking and has had a chance to “sober up” as the alcohol level in the bloodstream declines. However, long-term mental problems can develop if someone drinks slowly over a prolonged period. After long periods of drinking depression and even dementia can develop. Excessive drinking can lead to permanent brain damage that does not reverse completely even if the drinking stops, resulting in a condition sometimes called “wet brain.”
Just as dangerous as the psychological problems associated with drinking are the adverse effects of alcohol on the body. An estimated 80,000 people a year die of the chronic illnesses and general physical deterioration caused by alcohol. As a result of these medical problems, alcohol abuse is considered the third most common cause of preventable deaths in America. The risks of both heart disease and cancer are increased by alcohol use, especially among young people who are otherwise not prone to those illnesses. The loss of coordination and mental alertness caused by alcohol also increases the risk of accidents of all kinds.
Compounding the physical and psychological costs of alcohol are the enormous financial consequences related to alcoholism. When the financial losses due to alcohol from accidents, lower productivity, medical costs and crime are combined, the cost to American society is estimated at over 50 billion per year. The number of deaths that are considered caused by alcohol is nearly 25,000 per year.
Both short-term and long-term alcohol abuse are linked to some social problems. Academic failure among college students, assaults and other crimes, injuries and property damage, sexual abuse and suicide are all linked to alcohol abuse. Alcohol is also implicated in an array of health problems too numerous to list, but including liver failure, cancer, and heart disease. Alcohol can increase the rate of aging and aggravate already existing medical conditions not related to alcohol use. Alcohol also mixes poorly with most prescription medicines, making them either ineffective or exaggerating their effects, sometimes to dangerous levels.
Alcohol abuse is a global problem, with the United listed as number 32 among the per capita rate of alcohol abuse among nations. However, it is a small source of comfort that other nations have worse problems. It is important to remember that problems with alcohol affect not only the alcoholic but their families, friends, and employers as well. Despite the tendency to treat alcohol as not as dangerous as other forms of drug abuse, it deserves to be taken just as seriously. In fact, because alcohol is legal and therefore easier to gain access to than other potentially harmful drugs, many substance abuse experts consider alcohol to be the most serious drug abuse problem today.