Citation metadata

Date: Oct. 1, 2016
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Drug overview
Length: 6,298 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

Official Names: Ethyl alcohol, ethanol, grain alcohol
Street Names: Booze, hooch, moonshine, sauce, spirits (for alcohol in general); brew, suds (for beer); vino (for wine)
Drug Classification: Not classified, depressant

What Kind of Drug Is It?

Alcohol is an ancient drug. Beer and wine jugs well over 5,000 years old have been excavated from archaeological sites in southwest Asia and northern Africa. Prehistoric peoples are thought to have produced the first alcoholic beverages by accident. This occurred when mixtures of water, a bit of fungus, and wild berries left alone in the sun turned into alcohol through a process known as fermentation

Alcohol acts as a depressant. A depressant is a substance that slows down the activity of an organism or one of its parts. At the same time, drinking alcohol also lowers one's inhibitions. When this happens, someone might act more recklessly than he or she would normally.


Through the ages, alcohol has been used as an all-purpose drug: a painkiller, an antiseptic, a disinfectant, a teething aid for babies, a sedative, a battlefield medicine, and a drowner of sorrows. It is also associated with celebrations: offering a toast to a newly married couple is a common tradition.

During the Middle Ages (c. 500-c. 1500), alcohol became something of a status symbol among Europe's upper classes. Wine production became very important to the economies of Italy and France throughout the Renaissance period, which spanned the fourteenth through the early seventeenth centuries. Meanwhile, in the New World, the first distillery opened in 1640 in what would later become the state of New York. In the 1700s, home brewing processes were replaced largely by the commercial manufacture of beer and wine in Europe.

Laws banning the sale of alcoholic beverages date back to the fourteenth century, when Germany banned the sale of alcohol on Sundays and other religious holidays. Even earlier, Switzerland instituted laws requiring drinking establishments to close at certain times to combat public drunkenness. The United States has seen historical increases and decreases in alcohol use as well. High periods of alcohol consumption coincided with periods of war: during the American Civil War (1861-1865), World War I (1914-1918), and World War II (1939-1945), drinking increased among Americans. These peaks in alcohol usage were interrupted by so-called "dry" periods in U.S. history--times when the consumption of alcohol dropped to relatively low levels throughout the nation.

The Era of Prohibition in the United States

The longest span of dry years in the United States occurred during Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. At that time, many Americans viewed alcohol as a destructive force in society. Crime, poverty, gambling, prostitution, and declining family values were blamed on alcohol consumption. A ban on the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages in the United States began on January 16, 1920, with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. However, Prohibition did not stop all drinking in the United States. Some people produced alcohol in illegal stills, especially in rural areas. The brew created in these stills was often referred to as moonshine. The liquor was then sold on the black market. Other people brewed alcoholic beverages at home, hoping to not get caught.

During Prohibition, some people even went to other countries, primarily Canada, to buy alcohol and smuggle it back into the United States. Smugglers used all sorts of methods to hide the illegal drink. They hid it under false floors in trucks, under their clothing, and even in vials placed within walking sticks or canes. Prohibition proved to be highly unpopular. Thirteen years after it had begun, prohibition ended with the adoption of the Twenty First Amendment on December 5, 1933, and alcohol was once again deemed a legal substance in the United States.

Alcohol consumption rose considerably in the early and middle 1980s, when many states lowered the drinking age to eighteen. Because of the increase in the number of teen deaths tied to drinking and driving, the legal drinking age was raised to twenty-one throughout the nation in 1987. Government studies show that alcohol drinking reached its highest level in 1980 and 1981 at an average of 2.76 gallons per person over the age of 14 per year. That number dropped thereafter until 1997 and 1998 when it reached its lowest level in modern history, 2.14 gallons per person per year. After 1998, alcohol consumption began to increase once more until it reached 2.33 gallons per person per year in 2012, the latest year for which data are available.

The use of alcohol by underage individuals shows a somewhat different trend over the last four decades. As with adults, alcohol consumption among young people peaked in the early 1980s, when drinking was legal for individuals 18 years of age and older. But the number of underage drinkers has continued to decrease ever since that time, reaching 67.4 percent of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders interviewed for the Monitoring the Future study in 1991 and then dropping to 58.2 percent of the same population in 2001, and 45.3 percent in 2011. The most recent data (for 2014) show a continuation of that trend, with 40.7 percent of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders reporting having at least one alcoholic drink during the preceding year.

What Is It Made Of?

The chemical formula for ethanol or ethyl alcohol, otherwise known as alcohol, is C2H5OH. That formula means that an ethanol molecule is composed of two atoms of carbon, one atom of oxygen, and six atoms of hydrogen. Ethanol is a colorless liquid that is highly flammable. Aside from being an ingredient in alcoholic beverages, it is used in fuels, solvents, disinfectants, and preservatives.

Pure alcohol is too strong to drink by itself. It must be diluted with water and other substances to create alcoholic beverages. Ethyl alcohol is the only alcohol considered safe to drink when consumed in reasonable quantities. Other alcohols such as methanol (also called wood alcohol) and isopropyl alcohol (pronounced EYE-so-PROPE-uhl; also called rubbing alcohol) are not used in beverages. They are highly toxic (poisonous) to the body. Methanol, in particular, can cause blindness and even death if swallowed.

Types of Alcoholic Beverages

Wines and beers are produced by fermenting fruits, vegetables, and grains. Fermentation occurs when yeasts act on the sugars found in berries or grains. The yeasts catalyze (make possible) a reaction in which sugars in foods are converted to carbon dioxide and alcohol. Wine formed by this reaction has an alcoholic content between 9 and 15 percent, while the beer formed during fermentation has an alcohol content of 3 to 6 percent. Fermentation stops when the alcohol content of the product becomes high enough to kill the yeast that cause the change.

Hard liquor is produced by a process called distillation, which adds an extra step to the fermentation process. In distillation, liquids that have already been fermented are boiled to remove the alcohol. At the boiling point, the alcohol separates from the fermented liquid to create a vapor. The vapor is captured and then held separately in a cooling tube until it turns back into a liquid. The resulting alcohol, now removed from the original fermented liquid, becomes hard liquor when mixed with water.

Alcohol makes up anywhere from 35 to 60 percent of distilled liquors such as whiskey, rum, vodka, scotch, and gin. The percentage of alcohol in hard liquor is used to determine the "proof" number printed on every bottle. Proof is determined by doubling the percentage of pure alcohol in a liquor and then dropping the percentage sign. For instance, whiskey that is 50 percent alcohol is said to be 100 proof.

Liqueurs (pronounced lick-OARZ) are distilled from grain and mixed with fruit, herbs, spices, and sugary syrups. They are extremely sweet and very high in alcohol content. They are intended to be drunk in very small quantities, usually as an "after dinner" drink. Popular liqueurs include Cointreau (pronounced KWANN-troh), Tia Maria, and Drambuie (pronounced dram-BOO-ee).

Sweet and powerful drinks like brandy and port are made from distilled wine, which increases the alcohol content of 12 percent to two to three times that amount. "The original idea of distillers," wrote Andrew Weil and Winifred Rosen in From Chocolate to Morphine, "was to concentrate wine to a smaller volume to make it easier to ship it in barrels overseas. At the end of the voyage the brandy was to be diluted with water back to an alcohol content of 12 percent. What happened...was that when people got their hands on what was in the barrels, no one waited to add water. Suddenly a new and powerful form of alcohol flooded the world."

How Is It Taken?

Alcohol is swallowed, usually in a liquid form. It is also swallowed in gel form in semi-solid "Jell-O shots." These Jell-O shots are medicine-cup-sized mixtures of gelatin and hard liquor, such as vodka, which are chilled before serving. The high sugar content in the gelatin hides the taste of the alcohol, making Jell-O shots particularly dangerous. Fruit punch spiked with hard liquor can have the same powerful effect. Users could accidentally consume far more alcohol than they intended in a short period of time.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a standard drink is defined as one 12-ounce can of beer or bottle of wine cooler, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled liquor. Each of these drinks contains the equivalent of 1 ounce of pure alcohol.

Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?

Alcohol and alcoholic beverages have a long history of medicinal use. While claimed benefits have changed over the years, the United States Dispensatory 25th ed. (1955) states that alcohol was being used at that time to reduce anxiety, and to relieve chest pains associated with heart attacks. Alcohol blocks some of the messages trying to get to the brain. That is the primary reason it has been used for thousands of years to suppress pain, treat injuries and infections, and prepare people for surgery. In the past, alcohol has been used as an anesthetic, a sedative, and even a treatment for a lung disease called typhus.

Research in the 1990s showed that moderate amounts of alcohol could help reduce the risk of heart attacks. Abuse of alcohol, however, has been connected to heart disease. The 2009 Canadian Hypertension Education Program recommendations for the management of hypertension are to limit alcohol consumption to no more than 14 units per week in men or nine units per week in women.

Usage Trends

According to the 2015 Global Drug Survey, the most widely used drug in the world during the previous year was alcohol. Most experts agree that peer pressure, depression, and a need to fit in are all factors leading to alcohol use by teens.

Alcoholism Defined

There is a difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism. In 1956, the American Medical Association defined alcoholism as a disease. Alcoholism is described as a loss of control over drinking--a preoccupation with drinking despite negative consequences to one's physical, mental, and emotional makeup as well as one's work and family life. Problem drinkers might start out by abusing alcohol occasionally without being addicted to it. However, continued occasional abuse can change the brain in ways that make it depedent on alcohol. Therefore, anyone who drinks heavily over a long period of time will become physically dependent on alcohol.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), about 18 million Americans have alcohol problems. Excessive drinkers are generally defined as: 1) men who consume more than two drinks per day, every day, or more than three drinks at a time; and 2) women who consume more than one drink per day, every day, or more than three drinks at a time. Women used to make up one-third of the problem drinking population, but they are quickly catching up to men in terms of abuse. In general, if a woman and a man consume the same amount of alcohol, the woman will become more intoxicated in a shorter period of time. And because of their physical makeup, women are more likely than men to damage their hearts, livers, and brains due to drinking. An increased risk of breast cancer has also been linked to drinking.

Problem drinkers can be rich or poor, young or old, male or female. They come from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Although anyone can become an alcoholic, a child with an alcoholic parent runs a greater risk of developing the disease of alcoholism than a child of non-alcoholic parents.

Young People and Alcohol

New York Times contributor Howard Markel wrote, "Because the brains of teenagers are still developing, many experts believe they are at greater risk for becoming addicted." According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), young people who begin drinking before the age of thirteen are four times more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol than people who begin drinking at age twenty-one.

The results of the 2014 Monitoring the Future (MTF) study were released to the public in February 2015. Conducted by the University of Michigan (UM), the MTF was sponsored by research grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Since 1991, the study has tracked patterns of alcohol and drug use, as well as attitudes toward alcohol and drugs, among students in the eighth, tenth, and twelfth grades. (Prior to that, from 1975 to 1990, the MTF survey was limited to twelfth graders.)

The 2014 MTF survey results indicate that alcohol use among students in the eighth and tenth grades has fallen each year since 1991. The study found that 9.0 percent of 8th graders surveyed had taken at least one drink of alcohol in the 30 days before the survey. The comparable numbers of 10th and 12th graders were 25.7 and 39.2 percent respectively. At the same time, the trend about the harmfulness of drinking was in the positive direction, with students at all levels inclined to be more concerned about the risks involved in drinking. A total of 14.8 percent of 8th graders, 11.6 percent of 10th graders, and 8.8 percent of 12th graders agreed that taking only one drink of alcohol is dangerous to the drinker. Subjects in the study were also asked about the ease of obtaining alcohol for consumption. More than half of 8th graders (54.5 percent) said it was "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get alcohol if and when they wanted it. Among 10th and 12th graders, the response was even stronger, with 75.3 and 87.6 agreeing that it was "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get alcohol when they wanted it.

Binge Drinking

In the late 1990s, "binge drinking" became an accepted term for a night of heavy drinking or simply for heavy alcohol consumption at one sitting. The term binge drinking generally refers to the consumption of five or more drinks in a row for males or four or more drinks in a row for females. According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), binge drinking among American teenagers increased between 1993 and 2001 from 12.1 percent of the population surveyed to 18.6 percent of those teenagers. After 2001, however, the number of young adults engaging in binge drinking dropped off and reached their lowest point ever in 2014.

Effects on the Body

Even though alcohol is considered "one of the most widely accepted recreational drugs," noted Gahlinger, its overall impact on public health "is far worse than all illegal drugs combined." Prolonged use of alcohol can have serious negative effects on the body. Long-term alcohol use can result in memory loss. Alcohol can suppress the immune system, making people more susceptible to infections. Heavy drinking can increase the user's risk of nutritional deficiencies, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, and liver disease.

The NIAAA reported that "alcohol-induced liver disease is a major cause of illness and death in the United States." The liver is the organ that breaks down alcohol in the body. It removes alcohol from the blood, leaving water, carbon dioxide gas, and energy as by-products. The carbon dioxide gas leaves the body through the lungs, and the water is eliminated in urine. Depending on the size, gender, and general health of the drinker, it can take the liver between one and two hours to process a glass of wine, a single beer, a shot of hard liquor, or one mixed drink.

If large quantities of alcohol are present in the body, the liver has to work overtime to break it down and eliminate it from the body. Until the liver has a chance to filter all of the toxins, or highly poisonous substances, out of a drinker's blood, the remaining alcohol will simply stay in the bloodstream and recirculate. "There are limits on the number and amounts of toxic substances a liver can handle without harm to it," explained Laurence Pringle in Drinking: A Risky Business. Heavy drinking can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, a deadly disease common among alcoholics. "In cirrhosis," continued Pringle, "cells of the liver are actually being killed by alcohol...Continued heavy drinking may cause the liver to fail entirely."

Down the Hatch, and Then What?

After alcohol is swallowed, it passes first into the stomach and then into the small intestine. Most of the alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the small intestine and carried to the brain through the blood. Alcohol has profound effects on the brain's ability to function effectively. Even though alcohol is a depressant, low doses of it can cause the release of certain brain chemicals that produce a sense of euphoria. This "high" is misleading because it makes alcohol seem like a stimulant.

First and foremost, alcohol causes a loss of inhibition in those who drink it. "Judgment is the first function of the brain to be affected," wrote Gail Gleason Milgram of the Rutgers University Center of Alcohol Studies in an online article. "The ability to think and make decisions becomes impaired." People with lowered inhibitions tend to take more chances and engage in riskier behavior than they would if they had not been drinking. A self-conscious individual who has had a drink or two may become more confident. A shy person may become more talkative. People who have had too much to drink often engage in unsafe sex and are at a much greater risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus), which can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

The most obvious physical effects of alcohol consumption are slowed reflexes, a lack of coordination, difficulty walking "a straight line," and slurred speech. As more alcohol is consumed, drinkers experience dizziness, nausea, dehydration, and an inability to reason. Having a large number of drinks in rapid succession puts many drinkers to sleep. Those who remain awake and continue drinking increase their likelihood of passing out, which can be very dangerous. Intoxicated people who throw up while unconscious risk choking on their vomit. This can be--and often is--fatal, because vomit easily blocks the drinker's airway, making breathing impossible.

"Chronic, repeated drinking damages and sometimes kills the cells in specific brain areas," noted Kuhn. "And it turns out that it might not take a very long history of heavy drinking to kill cells in certain areas of the brain" involved in memory formation and problem solving.

Effects May Vary

The physical effects of alcohol on the body depend on several different factors. Both the amount of food present in the stomach when drinking and the amount of time that elapses between drinks influence a person's physical response to alcohol. "Peak blood alcohol concentration [BAC] could be as much as three times greater in someone with an empty stomach than in someone who has just eaten," wrote Kuhn. Five drinks consumed in one hour will have drastically different effects on the drinker than five drinks consumed with food over five hours.

The gender, size, and mental outlook of the drinker also affect the body's response to alcohol. "Alcohol does not dissolve in fat tissues," explained Weathermon and Crabb. Because women have a larger proportion of body fat than men, they tend to feel the effects of alcohol after drinking smaller doses than men do. A smaller person will become intoxicated sooner than a larger person because the larger person has more blood and body fluids mixing with the alcohol he or she consumes. A person's reaction to alcohol also varies according to the circumstances under which it is consumed. "The same amount of wine that makes someone pleasantly high at a party may make a depressed person in a lonely room even more depressed," commented Weil.

Drinking and Driving

Alcohol abuse is a serious health problem. According to the most recent data available (2014) 88,000 people die in the United States annually from alcohol-related problems. The vast majority of those deaths were men (62,000), compared to about a third that number (26,000) for women. Alcohol consumption is also responsible for a host of diseases and disorders, such as anemia, various types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis, dementia, and gout. The abuse of alcohol can also cause a condition known as alcohol use disorder, characterized by a variety of mental and emotional behaviors similar to those observed with other types of drug addiction. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has estimated that, in 2013, 697,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 suffered from alcohol drug abuse, among whom 73,000 were receiving care in a specialized facility.

The rate of fatal motor-vehicle crashes in alcohol-involved drivers age sixteen to twenty is more than twice the rate for alcohol-involved drivers over the age of twenty-one. The probable reason for this statistic, according to an NIAAA "Alcohol Alert" from 2003, is that younger drivers have less experience behind the wheel. Adding alcohol to the mix is a recipe for disaster. In addition, according to the NIH, the part of the brain that inhibits risky behavior is not fully developed until they reach the age of twenty-five.

Alcohol and Pregnancy

Alcohol and pregnancy do not mix. Alcohol use can interfere with a woman's ability to become pregnant. It can also lower a man's sperm count and reduce his sexual drive.

There is no safe level of alcohol consumption for a woman at any time during a pregnancy. Every bottle of alcohol bears a warning label that reads: "According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects." If a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, so does her baby.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, and serious birth defects. Alcohol "disrupts [the] formation of nerve cells in a baby's brain," wrote Margaret O. Hyde and John F. Setaro in Drugs 101: An Overview for Teens. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) can occur when a woman drinks heavily while she is pregnant. It is one of the leading causes of birth defects in children and the most preventable cause of mental retardation. FAS babies have low birth weights, small heads, slowed mental and physical growth rates, and certain facial and skeletal abnormalities. It is a hard condition to diagnose because its symptoms can mimic those of other disorders. Babies born with fetal alcohol effects (FAE) are less severely impaired than FAS babies. FAE babies do not have distinctive facial and skeletal abnormalities, nor do they suffer the same level of brain damage as FAS babies, but they can have physical and behavioral problems such as poor coordination, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorders.

Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances

Alcohol should not be consumed with any over-the-counter or prescription medications because harmful interactions can occur. Sometimes, the effect of a medicine is increased by alcohol. In other cases, a medication may not be able to break down properly in the presence of alcohol. Drinking alcohol with antihistamines, for instance, will increase the drowsiness that can occur with cold-type medicines. Alcohol can cause liver damage when taken in combination with acetaminophen (best known by the brand name Tylenol).

Alcohol has additional negative effects when taken with other drugs. For example, when taken with aspirin, alcohol can irritate the stomach lining and cause gastrointestinal bleeding. Alcohol combined with antidepressants affects the user's coordination and reaction time, making the operation of motor vehicles and other machinery extremely risky. Alcohol taken with barbiturates ("downers" such as Nembutal, Seconal, Amytal, and Tuinal) can increase depression.

Mixing alcohol with tranquilizers, muscle relaxants, sleeping aids, and other medicines can cause serious side effects, especially in elderly people. Alcohol consumed with illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or amphetamines can be deadly.

Treatment for Habitual Users

There is no cure for alcoholism, but the advancement of the disease can be stopped if the user quits drinking. The Hazelden Foundation's "Alcohol Screening" Web page states that "for one in thirteen American adults, alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence (alcoholism) causes substantial harm to their health and disruption in their lives." In "Substance Abuse: The Nation's Number One Health Problem," Nels Ericson noted that "only a quarter of individuals who abuse alcohol and illicit drugs get treatment...Treatment for alcoholism is successful for 40 to 70 percent of patients."

There are several types of treatment options available for alcoholics. Most incorporate at least some of the principles that make up the twelve-step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA offers a popular and effective approach to rehabilitation. It helps the user gain an understanding of alcoholism as a disease. The first AA group was formed in Akron, Ohio, in 1935, by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. According to the AA Web site, there were more than 115,000 groups and over 2 million members in 150 countries as of 2014.

Inpatient programs, which are often found in hospital settings, usually begin with a period of detoxification, followed by extensive counseling and, if necessary, a drug program to discourage the drinker from relapsing. (Certain medications are designed to make an alcoholic feel very sick when combined with alcohol.) Detoxification, or detox, addresses the physical aspect of "drying out" the drinker. Withdrawal symptoms can be intense and frightening to the recovering alcoholic. At their worst, symptoms can include hallucinations, tremors (uncontrollable shaking), and seizures.

Detox is usually followed up with individual and/or family counseling and involvement in a twelve-step program such as the one offered by AA. Psychiatric hospitals address both the problem of alcohol abuse and the emotional issues that accompany it. Treatment includes individual, group, and/or family counseling, drugs to treat psychiatric illnesses, and the additional support of a twelve-step program.

Another type of inpatient program is the 28-day rehabilitation facility. This type of treatment program offers detoxification from alcohol as well as: 1) support from substance abuse counselors; 2) education on the disease concept of alcoholism; and 3) individual, group, and family therapy. In addition, it uses support group meetings both on and offsite. Residential programs are yet another alternative. In residential programs, patients stay at a home for recovering alcoholics. At these "sober houses," as they are called, several alcoholics work together to stay alcohol-free. They receive counseling, job assistance, and group support.


People have been known to do things under the influence of alcohol that they would never consider doing when sober. Drinking too much can leave users with little or no recollection of what they did or said while drunk. NCADD statistics show that alcohol is involved in one out of every four emergency room admissions, one out of every three suicides, and one out of every two homicides and incidents of domestic violence. "A report from the British Medical Association," stated Emma Haughton in Drug Abuse? (1997), estimated that up to 70 percent of all murders in the United Kingdom were somehow "associated with alcohol abuse."

People who drink heavily develop a tolerance to alcohol. As the disease of alcoholism progresses, an alcoholic will need to drink more and more to get the desired result that lower doses of alcohol had once produced. Tolerance actually changes the alcoholic's brain impulses and the chemical makeup of cell membranes.

Alcoholics typically go through several stages, changing their patterns of use to patterns of abuse. They may begin using alcohol as an occasional stress reliever. They promise themselves and others that their drinking is just a "temporary thing." But over several years it becomes a habit. Their families struggle to hide the drinkers' growing problems with alcohol. As the disease progresses, drinkers usually experience mood changes, problems with friends and family, and trouble on the job. In the final stage, alcoholics begin to suffer physical decline as a result of drinking and may develop illnesses like liver disease or heart failure.

The personal consequences of alcoholism reach far beyond the alcoholic. An alcoholic's drinking affects many people, especially the members of his or her family. Children of alcoholics sometimes continue the cycle of alcoholic behavior when they reach adulthood. Alateen is an international organization for teens who are relatives or friends of a problem drinker. Support groups like Alateen help young people break the cycle of addiction and lead healthy lives.

The Law

It is against the law to consume alcohol in the United States until the age of twenty-one, but, most teens have done it. Underage drinking can lead to arrest. In the United Kingdom, it is illegal for anyone under the age of eighteen to buy alcohol, whether in a supermarket or a pub. It is also illegal to supply someone under the age of eighteen with alcohol.

For years, the legal blood alcohol concentration for adult drivers ranged from 0.08 percent to 0.1 percent throughout the United States. A stricter national standard of 0.08 was adopted by most states in the first few years of the twenty-first century. The BAC limit for drivers under twenty-one was set at 0.02 in every state. Penalties for driving while intoxicated vary from state to state and can include fines, jail sentences, probation, driver's license suspension, mandatory community service, or participation in an alcohol education program.

The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released a summary of impaired-driving statistics in May of 2015. According to the data, about 1.4 million people were arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol or drugs in 2010. In addition, some experts estimate that more than 100 million other drunk drivers were on the roads but were not caught. Alcohol consumption was a factor in two out of every five traffic-related deaths in 2013. In addition, 10,076 people were killed in alcohol-impaired car crashes, about a third of all traffic deaths in the nation in 2013.

Alcoholic beverage control laws (ABC laws) were developed in the United States to prevent the illegal sale of alcohol. ABC laws are enforced by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Each state regulates where alcohol can be sold and where it can be consumed. Restaurants, convenience stores, grocery stores, and bars selling alcohol must have special licensing. A person must be twenty-one years old to purchase and consume alcohol. Buying alcohol for an underage drinker is illegal, even if the buyer is over twenty-one. Warning labels are required on all alcoholic beverages sold in the United States. These labels alert consumers to the possible dangers of alcohol use when pregnant, driving an automobile, or operating machinery.

Key Terms

a chemical reaction that breaks down food
inner thoughts that keep people from engaging in certain activities
a drug used to treat anxiety and calm people down
a ban on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages
black market
the illegal sale or trade of goods; drug dealers are said to carry out their business on the "black market"
the colorless flammable liquid in alcoholic drinks; ethanol is the substance that gets people drunk
the separation of liquids by a process of evaporation
the measure of the strength of an alcoholic beverage
a substance used to deaden pain
a disease that results in habitual, uncontrolled alcohol abuse; alcoholism can shorten a person's life by damaging the brain, liver, and heart
binge drinking
consuming a lot of alcohol at one time
the breakdown of mucus membranes, usually in the stomach
a loss of feeling, consciousness, or movement caused by the breaking or blocking of a blood vessel in the brain
pronounced sir-OH-sis; destruction of the liver, possibly leading to death
drug-induced feelings ranging from excitement and joy to extreme grogginess
fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
a pattern of birth defects, learning deficits, and behavioral problems affecting the children of mothers who drank heavily while pregnant
fetal alcohol effects (FAE)
the presence of some--but not all--of the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
pronounced bar-BIH-chuh-rits; drugs that act as depressants and are used as sedatives or sleeping pills; also referred to as "downers"
drugs such as Valium and Librium that treat anxiety; also called benzodiazepines (pronounced ben-zoh-die-AZ-uh-peens)
often abbreviated as detox; a difficult process by which substance abusers stop taking those substances and rid their bodies of the toxins that accumulated during the time they consumed such substances
visions or other perceptions of things that are not really present
not drunk

No Nutritional Value

Alcohol contains what are called "empty calories." Beer, wine, wine coolers, and liquor have no nutritional value, but they still cause weight gain. Drinking alcohol is bad for the skin as well as the waistline. It increases the number and severity of acne breakouts. It is also known for causing bad breath among users.

Hard Liquors

The difference among various kinds of hard liquors lies in the grains or vegetables that are used to make them. Rye, corn, and barley are used to make whiskey. Vodka is distilled from potatoes, rye, or wheat. Scotch is derived from malted barley. Gin is a combination of distilled spirits (alcohol) flavored with juniper berries. Rum is made from molasses.

Adding carbonated drinks to hard liquor--mixing rum with cola or whiskey with ginger ale, for instance--produces a drink that seems stronger than liquor mixed with plain water. Carbonation speeds up the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.

Alcohol and the Entertainment Industry

Nels Ericson, a writer for the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, pointed out that alcohol is a standard prop in more than 90 percent of America's most popular movie rentals. Television is another media source that bombards youth with pro-drinking messages. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reported that "the typical American young person will see 100,000 beer commercials before he or she turns 18."

The New York Times reported in 2002 that a link may exist between movie-viewing habits and alcohol usage among teens. A Dartmouth College survey based on information from more than 4,500 fifth through eighth graders in the eastern United States revealed that "teenagers whose parents place no restrictions on their viewing R-rated movies appear much more likely to use tobacco or alcohol." Most of the students interviewed were fourteen years old or younger. By law, moviegoers are supposed to be seventeen or older to view an R-rated film at a theater. Nearly half of the students who saw R-rated films on a regular basis admitted they had tried alcohol, versus only 4 percent of the students who were not allowed to view R-rated films.

Paying the Price

In addition to the high one gets when drinking alcohol, the substance produces a variety of other potentially embarrassing, not to mention uncomfortable, effects.

  • The human body has all sorts of natural protective mechanisms. Vomiting is one of them. Nausea and stomach cramps are two ways that the brain alerts the body to the presence of poisons--like alcohol--in the system. The stomach rids itself of the poison by vomiting. People who have too much alcohol in their systems often end up clutching a toilet bowl and heaving up every bit of food and drink in their stomachs. Accidental urination can occur under the influence of alcohol as well, compounding the embarrassment.
  • Alcohol makes the blood vessels inside the brain expand. Drinking to the point of intoxication (drunkenness) often results in an uncomfortable set of physical effects known as a "hangover." Contrary to popular belief, drinking coffee, eating high-sugar foods, or taking a cold shower will not relieve hangover symptoms. The pounding headache, upset stomach, and trembling feelings that often follow a night of heavy drinking will not subside until the brain's blood vessels return to their normal size. In short, nothing but time will get rid of a hangover.

Alcohol-Related Vehicle Crashes

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (

  • 32,719 people in the United States died in alcohol-related motor-vehicle crashes in 2013
  • Alcohol-related crashes on America's roads injure someone every two minutes
  • Alcohol-related crashes in the United States cost roughly 59 billion dollars each year.

Drunk on Mouthwash

Listerine mouthwash is 26.9 percent alcohol. In January of 2005, a Michigan woman was arrested for drunk driving after drinking three glasses of Listerine. Her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was more than three times Michigan's legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Alcohol." UXL Encyclopedia of Drugs and Addictive Substances, Gale, 2010. Gale Health and Wellness, Accessed 13 Dec. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CV2646400002