Alcohol is the most widely used, and abused drug in our society. One hundred million Americans, 70 percent of the adult population, consume in excess of 300 million, gallons every year–roughly 3 gallons per drinker. The price we pay is staggering.
Alcohol misuse is responsible for 250,000 deaths in the United States annually. Only cancer and heart disease kill morn.
Half our prison population is incarcerated- because of alcohol-related crimes, and 50 percent, of arrests in America are alcohol-connected.
One out of five of those in mental institutions is there because of alcohol misuse. Alcohol is also directly or indirectly responsible for, one-third of all suicides and is a major factor in the nation’s growing child-abuse problem. Half the auto deaths on our roads can be credited to alcohol, along with a majority of sex offer.
Alcohol drains the economy of more than $25 billion each year, including $1,0 billion in lost work time, $8 billion for welfare and for- the treatment of alcoholism, $6 billion for automobile accidents and property damage.
Yet, in spite of these frightening statistics, alcohol remains ‘ something of a social enigma. On the one hand, it is the biggest killer drug in America, taking more lives and causing . more damage than all other drugs, legal and illegal, com bined. On the other hand, when used responsibly, in moderation, it can be a relatively pleasant, safe intoxicant for ”’the majority.
The “problem” lies not with alcohol, but rather with its misuse-misuse due to ignorance and a false sense of security stemming from the simple fact that it is legal to anyone deemed to be of age. Because it is so available, we tend to forget that alcohol is a drug, and a potentially dangerous one at that. As with any other drug, information is essential if we are to avoid problems.
Alcohol is the oldest drug known to man. Recorded history indicates evidence of its use in Egypt almost six thousand years ago. Indeed, alcoholic beverages were probably consumed by prehistoric man, simply because the juice of any fruit left open to the air inevitably undergoes fermentation.
Throughout the ages alcohol has played a wide variety ‘of roles: social, medical, and religious. Socially, it has always served as an intoxicant to be shared by friends-one seemingly capable of producing a spirit of conviviality and euphoria by clouding over life’s stresses. Medically, alcohol has been prescribed in the treatment of many ailments, in addition to having been used widely as an early anesthetic. Most medical “benefits” have proved to be largely imaginary, however. Religious use dates to . Bacchus. Wine is still an integral `part of Holy Communion, not to mention weddings, bar mitzvahs,. and other religious festivals of the Western World.
Use of alcohol in America dates back to pilgrim times, when drinking in moderation was generally accepted. During the 1800s, however, western migration and the industrial revolution brought many to stress-filled areas, greatly accelerating alcohol consumption. As a result, citizens began to regard drinking and drunkenness as a social problem. The drunk became an object of shame and scorn and drinking was looked upon as a serious vice. This negative attitude peaked with Prohibition in 1920, a total ban that remained in effect until 1933.
Prohibition was a ‘failure. Despite the law, people continued to drink. Speakeasies – illegal drinking parlors – soon abounded, and where alcohol of quality was not available, people turned to substitutes such as ether and marijuana.
Since the repeal of Prohibition, ‘public attitudes about alcohol have changed significantly. Alcohol is now an accepted part of our way of life; it is no longer looked down upon, although most of us are aware of the problems caused by the drug. While what we do “accept” is drinking in moderation, drinking to excess is also largely ignored today. We sometimes do it to celebrate (as on New Year’s Eve) and we often find the comic “drunk” a million laughs. But alcohol is no laughing matter.
Contrary to popular belief, alcohol is not a stimulant. The drug is actually a downer -a sedative- depressant of the central nervous system similar to a fast-acting barbiturate. Ethyl alcohol (or ethanol) should not be confused with methyl alcohol (or wood alcohol),.which is potentially deadly when ingested in even moderate amounts. When ethyl alcohol is unavailable, desperate alcoholics may turn to methyl alcohol, with such serious effects as blindness and brain damage, if they survive:
In pure form, alcohol is a colorless liquid with a burning taste and slight odor. Usually consumed in beverage form in varying strengths, it is one of the most powerful drugs legally available. Alcohol content varies in different beverages; Beer has about 4 percent, wine about 12 percent, and whiskey up to 50 percent. Don’t let these figures fool you: A bottle of beer, a glass of wine, and a shot of whiskey all have about the same alcohol content and inebriation potential.
Alcohol is a fast-acting drug. Effects usually appear within minutes, varying widely from person to person, depending upon one’s physical and psychological makeup, the setting, and tolerance levels. Some experience the drug as a stimulant, others as a, tranquilizer-sedative. High enough quantities can produce hallucinogenic effects. Generally, the more a given person drinks, the less control he will have physically, socially, psychologically, and occupationally.
Three ounces of 90-proof whiskey can reduce the user’s anxiety, his sense of unknown fear. He relaxes, his self confidence grows; he becomes talkative, believing his conversation to be brilliant and scintillating. This sense of well being may be accompanied by slightly reduced reflexes, but with this quantity driving skills are not yet significantly impaired.
After 6 ounces, the imbiber’s mood may decline; self-confidence generally starts to crumble and collapse. He usually becomes unsteady, fumbling for his keys, finding it difficult to handle routine tasks. Memory control dwindles, as does concentration. Self-restraint is weakened, sometimes causing the drinker to become hostile. Speech is slurred, movements become awkward, -and inhibitions disappear along .with emotional control. Driving becomes hazardous, with the chance of accidental death or injury increasing six-fold.
Nine ounces can produce gross intoxication. Judgment becomes distorted; rage may alternate with tears. If the user can stand, his gait will be markedly impaired. Thinking and memory become clouded, emotions can run amok. The drinker is easily involved in quarrels and no longer cares about normal responsibilities such as being on time.
Beyond the 9-ounce level, the chance of coma and death from respiratory depression becomes a distinct reality for some, especially after 19 to 30 ounces have been consumed.
For the vast majority of users, moderate drinking is not upsetting and does not prove to be habit-forming. Moreover, alcohol’s effects are not cumulative, unless the drug is consumed excessively.
Most common “cures” for overimbibing are of little or no benefit. Coffee, cold showers, and home remedies will not significantly affect the rate at which alcohol is oxidized. Emptying the stomach may help, but time is the chief factor in removal of alcohol from the body.
If alcoholics consumed too rapidly, particularly if the user has not eaten, the stomach may reject it by vomiting. The drug is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach wall and promptly distributed to every organ. Effects begin once the drug reaches the brain.
One popular misconception about alcohol is that it can warm you if you are chilled. Actually, it has precisely the opposite effect, causing the user to feel even colder by increasing perspiration and loss of body heat.
Alcohol is a dangerous drug when misused, having a high potential for physical and psychological dependence. It increases violent or homicidal behavior and is the major cause of motor-vehicle accidents because it impairs coordination, reflexes, and judgment. It is capable of producing major irreversible body damage it can rupture veins, cause vitamin deficiencies and deteriorate the brain, liver, kidneys, and stomach. As few as four drinks a day can cause organ damage. Overuse of alcohol can seriously interfere with the liver’s ability to process fat, and is definitely responsible for cirrhosis of the liver, a very serious and potentially deadly disease common to alcoholics. It can also be a killer in combination with other drugs. Just one bout of alcohol intoxication may give rise to mild withdrawal symptoms, along with the effects of hangover.
Alcohol used beyond moderation produces tolerance; more and more is needed to produce the same effects. This trend is reversed at alcoholism levels, when the liver has been so damaged that the drug is not broken down before going to the brain.
Alcohol has high addiction potential. We politely call alcohol dependence “alcoholism” rather than “addiction;” perhaps because ‘ the drug is legal and so widely used. Becoming an alcoholic takes time, usually three to fifteen years of prolonged use. There are approximately ten million alcoholics in the United States. Eighty percent do not believe they are addicted.
Alcoholism is still a cloudy subject area. Experts have not agreed on the reasons why some people become alcoholics while others do not. Some see it as an illness; others think it has hereditary roots (54 percent of all alcoholics and 36 percent of all narcotics addicts had alcoholic parents). There is no standard definition of alcoholism. Although 2 to 3 ounces per day is generally considered “safe,” it does not depend upon the number of drinks consumed, but rather on ones physical and psychological makeup. Experts contend that some people are more prone to alcoholism than others. Those who cannot react well to serious life stress situations, such as the illness or death of a loved one, may be prime. candidates. The angry, destructive personality with an excessive need for power may be a serious contender before he touches his first drink. Other experts suggest that alcoholics’ bodies cannot break down sugar the way most people’s do, and they may unknowingly crave alcohol as an energy source. This may ex plain why alcoholics often drink alone, rather than with groups as social drinkers do.
Although there is much speculation and argument regarding causes of alcoholism, no debate exists about the serious consequences of this condition. Heavy users are subject to a wide variety of problems. Proper diet is often neglected, resulting in serious vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Alcohol, more than any other factor, causes impotence, family problems, and child abuse. Insanity can result from excessive use over a long period of time because of the severe beating it administers to the nerves and organs. The chronic alcoholic often experiences delirium tremens (the DTs), a frightening, screaming state that can accompany one to the alcoholic ward. The heavy drinker can look forward to a greatly reduced lifespan.
If the alcoholic goes just a few hours without a drink, he can expect withdrawal symptoms, including tremors, jitters, anxiety, nausea, sweating, vomiting, cramps, frightening hallucinations, convulsions, exhaustion, coma, circulatory and heart failure, and even death. Withdrawal from alcohol is serious business, similar to that from barbiturates and other depressant substances. It is more dangerous than withdrawal from heroin, since heroin withdrawal is never fatal, while alcohol withdrawal can be. Delirium is difficult to control and reverse: Attempts to detoxify and withdraw an alcoholic should be made only by these with professional medical training, and withdrawal can take several weeks to achieve.
True “cure” of alcoholism is rare, with only a handful of ex-addicts remaining abstinent. Research continues for a medical method to reduce craving, but so far the results have been less than satisfactory.
Qne approach to treatment was discovered in the late 1940s by two Danish scientists who had been searching for a cure for worms. The drug they developed was tetraethylthiuram disulfide, or disulfiram, now marketed under a variety of trade names including Antabuse, Refusal, and Aversan. Antabuse alone is harmless, but when alcohol is taken by an Antabuse user the combination produces a harrowing set of effects, including nausea, flushing, dizziness, vomiting, weakness, disorientation, and chest pain-enough to stop even hardened drinkers from further imbibing. This drug, which must be taken daily, is a serious one and should only be prescribed by a physician.
LSD has been another experimental treatment. While some initial success had been reported in alcoholism-cure experiments with LSD, research in this area was discontinued when the drug was outlawed in the late 1960s.
Megavitamin therapy has also been tried, because large amounts of injected B and C vitamins can help repair damaged nerve cells.
Some amethystic agents, such as L-Dopa (often used by those with Parkinson’s Disease), have been the subjects of experiments in recent years. Amethystic agents do not reduce the amount of alcohol in the user’s system; rather, they stimulate the manufacture of chemicals in the brain that reverse the effects of alcohol and help to sober up the overindulger.
Perhaps the most famous accepted, and successful approach to alcoholism is that of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA does not believe there is a cure for alcoholism, but seeks to control the condition through abstinence. What the organization provides for its members is a powerful form of group therapy, with emotional security and support for the alcohol-troubled Constant vigilance is maintained over members to prevent any return to drinking. For some, the AA approach works; for others, it does not. Perhaps the greatest weakness in AA’s philosophy is its refusal to believe in psychotherapy for alcoholics. While abstinence may be the most immediate need for many, psychotherapy has the lit potential for getting to the root of the problem-the reason why drinking to excess began in the first place.
As is the case with all recreational drugs, alcohol should not be consumed by expectant mothers. Since alcohol is at one point absorbed through the placenta, fetal damage can occur. Alcohol-related birth defects have been known to physicians for more than a century. Studies show that alcoholic mothers can pass the problem on to their babies, who often suffer withdrawal symptoms soon after birth. Alcoholic mothers have eight times the number of stillbirths as normal mothers. Birth defects resulting from alcohol outweigh those caused by all illegal drugs combined.
Mixing alcohol with other drugs can be a deadly practice. Many drugs relate to alcohol in a synergistic fashion, which means that small, ordinarily “safe” quantities of each, when taken together, can combine to cause death from central nervous system depression. Specific drugs that should never be mixed with alcohol include barbiturates, PCP, MAO inhibitors (e.g., Ritalin, Elavil, etc.-ask your physician if x you are – taking any of the drugs ‘ in this category), methaqualone (e.g., Quaalude), tranquilizers, opiates, and synthetic narcotics.
Other recreational drugs should not be mixed with alcohol, either, since at least half of all street drugs tested-are not what they are purported to be.
Used properly in moderation, alcohol tends to do most people very little harm. Misused,’ its potential for damage is mind-boggling. Good or bad, it is here to stay.
Although there has been a national slowdown in hard liquor sales, due’ in part to the increase in’ marijuana smoking, alcohol use is still widespread. Estimates indicate 85 percent of teenagers have their first drink before reaching legal age. Alcohol is used at elementary school levels as well as in upper grades. For many youngsters, the first drink is associated with a rite of passage into adulthood. Children are subject to strong peer pressure when it comes to alcohol and, as with tobacco, often feel its use makes them look grownup. Because they can afford and obtain it. more easily, some children use alcohol in place of less harmful drugs such as marijuana. Unfortunately, parents often feel unconcerned and even relieved when they discover their children using alcohol instead of other drugs.
With all of alcohol’s negatives, one thing is certain: It cannot be banned or controlled to any great degree. The only hope for control lies within ourselves and our attitudes. Early childhood education would seem to offer the most logical answer. If children are instructed about responsible use of alcohol before they develop uncontrollable habits of misuse, the problem it produces may be minimized in the future.
Alcohol; harmless intoxicant, or deadly killer? The choice is yours.