This question is one that is asked more often than you think. Alcohol is hardly ever considered to be a drug. This might be due to its legal status, common usage, or belief that its consequences aren’t severe. The portrayal of alcohol in the media glamorizes imbibing and the culture of using alcohol to self-medicate. It feels like it’s all around us all the time, and it is. We are desensitized to it. But what do all of these facts have to do with whether or not alcohol is actually a drug? Let’s take a look.
What is alcohol?
Google defines alcohol as a colorless volatile flammable liquid that is the component in wine, beer, spirits, and other drinks that cause intoxication. It is also used as an industrial solvent and as fuel. People drink alcohol to socialize, relax, celebrate, medicate, and for the taste. Alcohol lowers our inhibitions and causes people to feel and act differently.
Everyone’s relationship with alcohol is different. Some people drink a little, while others drink a lot, and some become addicted while others do not. While drinking occasionally is not indicative of a problem, there are growing concerns about the health risks surrounding alcohol consumption.
Drinking alcohol is common. In 2014, 87.6 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime. In terms of binge drinking and heavy drinking, 24.7 percent of individuals ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month, while 6.7 percent reported that they engaged in heavy drinking the past month. Many people are shocked when they hear what the actual size of a standard drink is. In the U.S. one standard drink contains 14 grams of pure alcohol which can be found in:
- 12 oz. of regular beer.
- 5 oz. of wine.
- 1.5 oz. of distilled spirits.
Alcohol consumption carries many risks. For example, 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year, making alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. In 2014, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted 31 percent of overall driving deaths. Alcohol contributes to over 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions like liver cirrhosis, cancer, and hypertension. This year, a study published in the scientific journal, Addiction, determined that drinking alcohol is a direct cause of 7 different types of cancer, including cancer of the oropharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum, and breast. Growing evidence also points to alcohol being a direct cause of skin, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.
In 2009, alcohol-related liver disease was the primary cause of 1 in 3 liver transplants in the U.S. Among liver fatalities, 48 percent were alcohol-related. Alcohol-related cirrhosis was highest (72.7 percent) among people aged 25 to 34.
There are some notable benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, but these are benefits you could obtain from exercise, healthy eating, and other healthy choices. Although alcohol is legal, it is still dangerous and can lead to alcohol use disorder.
Is alcohol classified as a drug?
Alcohol is a depressant drug. This means that alcohol slows the function of the central nervous system when it enters the body. That’s why people’s perceptions, emotions, movements, vision, and hearing can be altered when they drink. Alcohol is often to referred to as the most dangerous drug because it’s so commonly abused and its dangers are often overlooked.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has drug schedules where drugs, substances, and other chemicals used to make drugs are classified into five distinct categories, or schedules, depending on the drug’s medical use and the drug’s potential for abuse.
Drugs or chemicals with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Examples include heroin, LSD, marijuana, ecstasy, methaqualone, and peyote.
Substances or chemicals defined as drugs with a high potential for abuse with use leading to severe psychological or physical dependence. These drugs are considered to be dangerous. Examples include Vicodin, OxyContin, fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Ritalin.
Drugs of chemicals defined as drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence. Abuse potential is less than I and II, but more than IV. Examples include Tylenol with codeine, ketamine, anabolic steroids, and testosterone.
Drugs or chemicals defined as drugs with a low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence. Examples include Xanax, Soma, Darvon, Darvocet, Valium, Ativan, and Ambien.
Drugs or chemicals defined as drugs with lower potential for abuse than Schedule IV. They are generally used for antidiarrheal, antitussive, and analgesic purposes. Examples include Robitussin, Lomotil, Motofen, Lyrica, and Parepectolin.
You’ve probably noticed that alcohol is not on the DEA’s list. Why isn’t alcohol a Schedule I drug? Despite a public health crisis, federal officials seem reluctant to do anything about alcohol. Any time another drug like flakka or bath salts or Vicodin is in the news they are demonized, but alcohol is accepted, despite its fatalities. Due to this, alcohol brands are free to advertise as they please on television, social media, and everywhere else we look. It’s easy to get people hooked, and it makes brands money in the process.
Yes, alcohol is a drug. Perhaps it’s more dangerous because it is more accepted and less regulated. Alcohol is the source of many substance use disorders. In 2014, 16.3 million adults aged 18 or older had an alcohol use disorder. About 1.5 million adults received treatment for an alcohol use disorder at a specialized facility. Additionally, an estimated 55,000 adolescents received treatment for alcohol issues in a specialized facility. This proves that alcohol is addictive and can disrupt the lives of many.
You do not have to live this way; help is available, and treatment works. It can start today.
“Drug Schedules.” United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Accessed 26 September 2016.
“Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. June 2016. Accessed 26 September 2016.
Denis Campbell. “Alcohol is a direct cause of seven forms of cancer, finds study.” The Guardian. 21 July 2016. Accessed 26 September 2016.