A Widespread Problem
For most people, alcohol is a pleasant accompaniment to social activities. Moderate alcohol use––up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and older people (A standard drink is one 12–ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler, one 5–ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80–proof distilled spirits) –– is not harmful for most adults. Nonetheless, a substantial number of people have serious trouble with their drinking. Currently, nearly 14 million Americans––1 in every 13 adults––abuse alcohol or are alcoholic. Several million more adults engage in risky drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems. In addition, approximately 53 percent of men and women in the United States report that one or more of their close relatives have a drinking problem.
The consequences of alcohol misuse are serious––in many cases, life–threatening. Heavy drinking can increase the risk for certain cancers, especially those of the liver, esophagus, throat, and larynx (voice box). It can also cause liver cirrhosis, immune system problems, brain damage, and harm to the fetus during pregnancy. In addition, drinking increases the risk of death from automobile crashes, recreational accidents, and on–the–job accidents and also increases the likelihood of homicide and suicide. In purely economic terms, alcohol–use problems cost society approximately $100 billion per year. In human terms, the costs are incalculable.
What Is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism, which is also known as ”alcohol dependence syndrome,” is a disease that is characterized by the following elements:
• Craving: A strong need, or compulsion, to drink.
Loss of control: The frequent inability to stop drinking once a person has begun.
• Physical dependence: The occurrence of withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking. These symptoms are usually relieved by drinking alcohol or by taking another sedative drug.
• Tolerance: The need for increasing amounts of alcohol in order to get ”high.”
Alcoholism has little to do with what kind of alcohol one drinks, how long one has been drinking, or even exactly how much alcohol one consumes. But it has a great deal to do with a person's uncontrollable need for alcohol. This description of alcoholism helps us understand why most alcoholics can't just ”use a little willpower” to stop drinking. He or she is frequently in the grip of a powerful craving for alcohol, a need that can feel as strong as the need for food or water. While some people are able to recover without help, the majority of alcoholic individuals need outside assistance to recover from their disease. With support and treatment, many individuals are able to stop drinking and rebuild their lives. Many people wonder: Why can some individuals use alcohol without problems, while others are utterly unable to control their drinking? Recent research supported by NIAAA has demonstrated that for many people, a vulnerability to alcoholism is inherited. Yet it is important to recognize that aspects of a person's environment, such as peer influences and the availability of alcohol, also are significant influences. Both inherited and environmental influences are called ”risk factors.” But risk is not destiny. Just because alcoholism tends to run in families doesn't mean that a child of an alcoholic parent will automatically develop alcoholism.
What Is Alcohol Abuse?
Alcohol abuse differs from alcoholism in that it does not include an extremely strong craving for alcohol, loss of control, or physical dependence. In addition, alcohol abuse is less likely than alcoholism to include tolerance (the need for increasing amounts of alcohol to get ”high”). Alcohol abuse is defined as a pattern of drinking that is accompanied by one or more of the following situations within a 12–month period:
• Failure to fulfill major work, school, or home responsibilities;
• Drinking in situations that are physically dangerous, such as while driving a car or operating machinery;
• Recurring alcohol–related legal problems, such as being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or for physically hurting someone while drunk;
• Continued drinking despite having ongoing relationship problems that are caused or worsened by the effects of alcohol.
While alcohol abuse is basically different from alcoholism, it is important to note that many effects of alcohol abuse are also experienced by alcoholics.
Contact an EAP Counselor for information about how to recognize alcohol and other drug abuse in the workplace, handle substance abuse situations, and document when substance abuse is suspected.
Toll Free: 1–800–433–2320
*Information obtained from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism