Of all addictive substances, alcohol is the most commonly abused. However, only a few know that alcohol can actually be the deadliest drug. Why is this so? Read to know more.
Alcohol is the most abused drug in our society today. In 2017, 14.1 million adults were diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD), according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This accounts for almost 6% of the adults in the United States.
In fact, heavy drinking is more common than we may think:
- In 2017, 26.4% of people admitted to binge drinking in the past month.
- 6.7% of people reported engaging in heavy alcohol use in the previous month.
Drinking alcohol is considered an acceptable social activity. As people become adults, their experiences with alcohol often increase. Some stay casual drinkers, and others develop a habit.
Compared to using drugs, alcohol use is less frowned upon and there is much less stigma if you decide to drink in public compared to the criticism you may face if you smoke a joint or use drug paraphernalia.
The social context of drinking makes an alcohol addiction hard to spot, and it can be minimized when a person is an environment where alcohol is easy to access.
The Drug vs. Alcohol Debate
Many are quick to assume that alcohol is safer than drugs because drinking is legal for adults 21 and older in all U.S. states. Thinking that alcohol is safe is a misconception because alcohol kills more people than all other types of illegal drugs combined. Why is this so?
More people drink than use drugs
Many more people drink alcohol compared to those who use other drugs. While the media focuses attention on the opioid crisis and the debate over marijuana use, it gives less attention to the number of people drinking alcohol and developing alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol vs. drugs statistics
According to an article in Forbes, researchers reported that there has been an 11% increase in alcohol use in the United States population. The percentage of people using the substance grew from 65% to 73% in 2017. The findings show that the majority of people in the United States engage in some form of drinking.
The numbers are striking when compared to the number of people who are diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder (SUD). In 2013, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that 9.4% of the U.S. population used illicit substances in the past month.
Such drug use statistics are a cause for alarm, but the numbers are still considerably smaller than the number of people who consume alcohol. And when 73% of the population drinks alcohol, there is an increased likelihood that more people may develop alcohol addiction.
There is no clear-cut way to measure if people consume too much alcohol
How much is too much alcohol? The answer is not clear.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has created the Rethinking Drinking campaign. The campaign states that too much alcohol is 4 or more drinks a day for men and 3 or more drinks a day for women.
But different people actually have varying levels of tolerance and dependence. A person may be addicted even if they consume fewer than 3 or 4 drinks a day. Other individuals who are prone to developing a drinking habit may even be addicted the first few times they drink.
It doesn’t help that drinking is a socially acceptable activity, unlike using hard drugs. The acceptance of alcohol blurs the lines of what people consider an alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, it makes alcohol addiction difficult to spot, which leaves many undiagnosed and untreated.
Long-term alcoholism causes health problems.
Since many people don’t consider themselves alcoholics or may be in denial about their condition, they may struggle with alcoholism for years. The fact is, alcohol and tobacco result in more deaths each year than all illicit (illegal) drugs combined:
- 6 million people die each year from complications of smoking.
- 2.5 million people die each year from long-term effects of alcohol drinking.
- About 70,000 people die because of overdoses each year.
The normalization of alcohol drinking and its long-term use contribute to these addictions and deaths. Countless campaigns inform us of health problems associated with drinking, such as:
- Liver damage
- Cardiovascular problems
- Pancytopenia (low blood count due to the suppression of bone marrow)
When left untreated, such serious health problems can lead to poor quality of life and even death. Looking at these complications, it’s safe to assume that alcohol kills more than drugs.
Alcohol produces many harmful interactions.
Aside from the long-term effects of drinking, alcohol also contributes to many deaths because it produces harmful interactions. Using alcohol with many drugs can produce such interactions.
Many prescription drugs include warnings about the dangers of drinking alcohol when taking the medications. Consuming alcohol with over-the-counter medications and supplements can also be harmful.
Many medicines are not recommended or prohibited with alcohol use:
- Allergies, colds, and flu (Benadryl, Claritin, Tylenol)
- Angina (Isordil)
- Anxiety and epilepsy (Ativan, Valium, Xanax)
- ADHD (Adderall, Concerta)
- Cough (Robitussin)
- Depression (Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Prozac)
- Diabetes (Glucotrol, Glynase)
- High blood pressure (Lopressor, Catapres)
- High cholesterol (Zocor, Lipitor, Pravigard)
- Infections (Nizoral, Seromycin)
- Pain (Advil, Aleve, Excedrin)
- Severe pain (Percocet, Vicodin, Norco, Demerol)
- Seizures (Klonopin, Lyrica)
- Sleep problems (Ambien, Unisom, Lunesta)
Taking these medications and many others can cause complications such as liver damage, respiratory difficulties, rapid heartbeat, and a higher risk of overdose.
You can find a comprehensive list of drug and alcohol interactions on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. When using medication, read instructions and talk a pharmacist to determine if it will interact with alcohol. To be on the safe side, do not drink alcoholic beverages while taking drugs.
Alcohol-related accidents and violence are also a risk.
Is alcohol more dangerous than drugs? Alcohol-related accidents and alcohol-related violence illustrate the danger of the substance. Aside from health issues related to long-term drinking, alcohol contributes to 29 deaths each day due to impaired driving. It accounts for 30% of all motor vehicle crashes each year.
There are many campaigns that warn against drunk driving, and yet in 2016, 1 million people were still arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. In addition, alcohol also contributes to interpersonal and societal problems such as assaults, homicides, sexual attacks, and suicide, according to a study published in Alcohol Health and Research World. How addictive is alcohol compared to other drugs? Alcohol is quite addictive due to internal and environmental reasons. First, the substance affects the brain. Alcohol encourages the release of endorphins, a brain chemical associated with reward and pleasure. Endorphins may encourage people to consume more alcohol, which could create a habit that requires people to consume more drinks to achieve feel-good effects. The availability of alcohol in public spaces also contributes to why people may become more addicted to it much more easily than other substances. Compared to illegal drugs, you can purchase cans of beer or a bottle of vodka in a convenience store, which makes satisfying an alcohol addiction quick and easy. Even if an individual actively avoids alcohol, social drinking at various events may also create triggers for relapse.
Alcohol is highly addictive
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How addictive is alcohol compared to other drugs? Alcohol is quite addictive due to internal and environmental reasons.
First, the substance affects the brain. Alcohol encourages the release of endorphins, a brain chemical associated with reward and pleasure. Endorphins may encourage people to consume more alcohol, which could create a habit that requires people to consume more drinks to achieve feel-good effects.
The availability of alcohol in public spaces also contributes to why people may become more addicted to it much more easily than other substances. Compared to illegal drugs, you can purchase cans of beer or a bottle of vodka in a convenience store, which makes satisfying an alcohol addiction quick and easy. Even if an individual actively avoids alcohol, social drinking at various events may also create triggers for relapse.
Alcohol: The Most Dangerous Drug?
The numbers speak for themselves–alcohol is indeed the most dangerous drug. Not only does it pose a risk for addiction, but it can also cause long-term health dangers as well as accidents. Its widespread availability may make it even more difficult to battle alcohol addiction.
Is alcohol a legal drug? With its addictive properties and the complications that arise from its abuse, it probably is. This may be discouraging if you or a loved one is suffering from an alcohol use problem.
Despite these difficulties, overcoming alcohol addiction is possible–there is help available. There are many treatment options to help you battle alcohol use problems and to target the underlying causes that may keep you from recovering.
Alcohol is less of a threat if you avoid the pitfalls of becoming addicted. By arming yourself with the facts about alcohol use, it is easier to drink in moderation or to avoid drinking altogether. A life without alcoholism is better for the health and safety of you and your loved ones.
- niaaa.nih.gov – Alcohol Facts and Statistics
- forbes.com – People in the U.S. Are Drinking More Than Ever: Study
- drugabuse.gov – DrugFacts: Nationwide Trends
- rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov – What’s At-Risk or Heavy Drinking?
- reuters.com – Factbox: Tobacco, Alcohol, Fat, Have Huge Health Impact
- drugabuse.gov – Overdose Death Rates
- niaaa.nih.gov – Harmful Interactions
- cdc.gov – Impaired Driving: Get the Facts
- search.proquest.com – Epidemiology of Alcohol-Related Violence
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.