Alcohol is legal, socially acceptable, and a regular staple at holiday gatherings and sporting events. And, forget those cherry Icees and Starbucks Frappuccinos: what may be coming soon to a Target store near you is a new liquid incentive to shop. Still, most addiction experts agree that alcohol is more harmful than other drugs.
That consensus on alcohol draws support from a number of studies in recent years, which reveal what many never would have guessed about the dangers of one of America’s favorite drinking pastimes:
- Alcohol is more addictive than many illicit drugs — so much so that it sits at No. 2 on a very short list of the most addictive substances in the world.
- Alcohol is the most harmful drug in the world today.
- Alcohol is the #1 “gateway drug.”
- Alcohol, not drugs, is a leading cause of death each year.
Alcohol Is More Addictive Than Many Illicit Drugs
Alcohol is highly addictive—more addictive than many illicit drugs. A recent panel of experts and scientists ranked alcohol No. 2 among the top five most addictive substances in the world. That means that in competition for the title, “most addictive,” alcohol beat some very potent rivals, including cocaine, barbiturates and nicotine. (Alcohol’s only narrow loss was to heroin.)
Experts typically measure the inherent addictiveness of any drug on the basis of various criteria, such as:
- The harm that a drug in question causes
- A drug’s street value
- The degree to which a drug activates the brain’s pleasure and reward circuit, by boosting dopamine levels
- The intensity of pleasure the drug produces as reported by those who use it
- How easily a user can get hooked
- The degree to which a drug causes withdrawal symptoms
Alcohol consistently scores high in the above categories. Take, for example, what happens to dopamine levels in the presence of alcohol: In lab rats, these can go up anywhere from 40 to 360 percent when alcohol is the influencing drug.
Or, consider how easily a user can get hooked on alcohol. Almost one in four first-time users of alcohol will reportedly become dependent at some point in their lives.
The Harm That Alcohol Causes: Why It’s Worse Than Heroin, Crack or Marijuana
Then there is the far-reaching damage that alcohol causes. This can be measured both individually and societally, in terms of harm to users and others. Here alcohol outranks all other rivals, including heroin, cocaine and marijuana, as the drug that annually causes the most overall harm.
How is this so? Take a look:
- Alcohol leads to more deaths than all other drugs combined. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) estimates that alcohol causes 88,000 deaths every year, which is more than the annual number of deaths caused by all other drugs combined. The drug is also the third leading cause of death worldwide.
- The health-related costs of alcohol far exceed those associated with other drugs. More people enter treatment for alcohol than for any other drug. Then there are the costs of attending to the many alcohol-related injuries that show up in emergency rooms each year—not to mention the exorbitant price society pays for the tragic blight of drunk driving.
- Alcohol—not marijuana—is the leading “gateway drug” that sets teen users on the path toward long-term drug abuse. So a University of Florida study found last fall. Nearly 90 percent of drug-using high school seniors started with alcohol as early as fifth or sixth grade.
Long-Term Damage of Untreated Alcoholism
Arguably no other drug addiction poses long-term side effects as serious as those associated with an untreated addiction to alcohol. Damage to the body can be permanent and systemic, affecting key organs critical to survival, such as the brain, heart and liver. These eventually weaken and fail, having fallen prey to one or more of a number of terminal and life-threatening conditions caused by heavy drinking. These include:
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Congestive heart failure
- High blood pressure
- Mental illness
In the last case, the link between high alcohol use and cancer is well-established. Overconsumption of alcohol can lead to a variety of cancers, including cancers of the esophagus, stomach, colon, lungs, liver and prostate.
Despite the extreme dangers of alcohol addiction, recovery is possible through treatment in a rehab facility. Even the most serious alcoholics can get sober with the right support.