Trusted Content

Is Alcohol A Drug?

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

March 28, 2019

Alcohol is one of the most common and readily available substances of abuse. It is not unusual for the majority of social events to include alcohol in a variety of forms. People often inquire if alcohol is a drug, and the answer can be different depending on who is asked.

The short answer is, yes, alcohol is considered a drug. It is classified as a depressant drug, like opioids, which slows vital body functions. According to dictionary.com, a drug, in this context, is “a habit-forming medicinal or illicit substance”.

Alcohol is definitely habit-forming and can be considered an illicit substance when used in a way that it is not intended (ie. binge or heavy drinking, underage drinking, or drinking while pregnant), so it classifies as a drug by definition.

One of the reasons for the confusion about alcohol being a drug may be that it is not included on the Drug Schedule List of substances from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Many have speculated that alcohol being excluded is due to the heavy regulations imposed on alcohol after the elimination of Prohibition.

Additionally, alcohol is heavily advertised and accepted as a part of everyday life. Even with millions of people struggling with alcohol abuse, dependence, and addiction, alcohol is still viewed differently than other drugs of abuse.

But make no mistake, alcohol is most certainly a drug and substance of abuse. Over 1.5 million people receive alcohol abuse treatment services each year, and more than 15 million meet criteria for alcohol use disorder.

How Is Alcohol Like Other Drugs?

Alcohol is similar to other drugs in the following ways:

  • causes intoxication
  • considered a substance of abuse
  • addictive
  • tolerance can occur
  • potential for dependence
  • overdoses can occur (alcohol poisoning)
  • symptoms of withdrawal after stopping
  • responds to drug and alcohol abuse treatment

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How Is Alcohol Different From Other Drugs?

A major difference between alcohol and other drugs, is that alcohol consumption is generally accepted in society. It is quite common to see people drinking at sporting events, barbecues, birthday parties, camping trips, concerts, and other social events. People make events completely surrounded around drinking, like pub crawls and wine tasting.

The way individuals view alcohol abuse is much different from how other drugs are used. For example, if a person is weaving and stumbling down the sidewalk, they may get a laugh, head shake, or a disapproving eye. However, if someone were leaning against a building on that same sidewalk, with a needle in their arm, the response would be much different.

Alcohol is advertised as if it is a normal part of everyday life. The commercials, billboards, magazine ads, and pop-ups that advertise encourage drinking would never be acceptable for other drugs, like cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine.

Alcohol is legal and regulated by Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in some cases. The regulations were intended to keep alcohol from becoming a problem, even with its high risk for abuse and dependence. There is continued speculation as to whether these regulating bodies are doing just that.

Types Of Alcohol And Alcohol Content

While the amount of alcohol (alcohol content) varies based on type and process, there are ranges that they generally fall within. Alcoholic beverages, like beer and wine, are fermented and are usually two percent to 20 percent alcohol. Liquor, also referred to as distilled drinks, have a higher alcohol content that ranges between 40% and 50%.

Typical alcohol content for each type of alcoholic beverage is:

  • beer 2-6%
  • cider 4-8%
  • wine 8-20%
  • tequila 40%
  • brandy 40+%
  • rum 40+%
  • gin 40+%
  • vodka 40-50%
  • whiskey 40-50%
  • liqueurs 15-60%

While most liquors fall within those ranges, there are some exceptions that 75% up to 96% alcohol content. It is important to know what is in a mixed drink to avoid overindulging in alcohol or alcohol poisoning.

What Does Alcohol Intoxication Feel Like?

The way that the body responds to alcohol can be confusing because, in small doses, it can seem that a person is more outgoing, relaxed, and excited. However, too much alcohol can result in slurred speech, disturbed perceptions, lack of coordination, or even worse, alcohol poisoning.

After a drink or two, a person tends to feel more relaxed, and they may feel more extroverted. This is because alcohol depresses (or subdues) areas of the brain responsible for decision-making and other inhibitory behaviors.

Several drinks later, a person may stumble, have mood swings, have a significant delay in reaction time, and may experience trouble thinking clearly. Excessive or binge drinking can lead to blackouts, vomiting, nausea, or alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol Is A Drug

Being aware that alcohol abuse can result in the same addictive issues as other drugs can make a difference when a person decides to drink. Regardless of classification, regulation, advertising, or access, alcohol abuse has the potential to cause life-altering consequences.

Alcohol addiction is not a social activity and comes with many risks. Alcohol has been linked to cancer, cirrhosis, heart problems, and more than 200 health risks. Close to 90,000 people die from alcohol-related deaths annually.

The good news is that a quality alcohol treatment facility can help someone struggling with alcohol abuse, addiction, or dependence. Reaching out for assistance is the first step in the journey to sobriety.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Alcohol

United States Drug Enforcement Administration - Drug Scheduling

MedLine Plus - Substance Abuse

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