Together with tobacco use, drinking alcohol is one of the ways that people in the United States can legally kill themselves. Although binge drinking has decreased somewhat in recent years, alcoholism remains a national healthcare problem and the social and economic costs associated with alcohol use are truly staggering. Although full-blown alcoholism is the end result for many people who drink alcohol, there are a number of dangers associated with the practice that can harm or even kill people on their way to this dead-end path as well. Indeed, the nation's prisons are full of people who committed their crimes while under the influence of alcohol, just as the hospitals are filled with people who are the victims of drunk drivers as well as the drunk drivers themselves. In particular, adolescents are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as unprotected sex, driving when they are drinking and even committing suicide. Given the enormity of these dangers, it is surprising that anyone drinks alcohol at all, but the harsh reality of the matter is that alcohol is a major industry in the United States and efforts to outlaw its consumption in the past failed miserably. To determine what the situation is today, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning alcohol use to identify specific related dangers, any perceived benefits associated with its consumption and a cost-benefit analysis of the arguments in support of its use. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Alcohol is Harmful for the Mind and Body.
By definition, being "intoxicated" means that something "toxic" has been introduced into the body and in this case the toxin involved is ethanol alcohol. Because its use is truly ancient and its impact so pervasive, the impact of alcohol on the human body has been the source of research for a long time, and the growing body of evidence clearly supports the conclusion that the use of alcohol is physiologically as well as psychologically harmful for humans in general and adolescents in particular. A wide range of emotional and psychological problems are associated with alcohol use, including several types of depressive disorders, generalized anxiety, interpersonal problems and antisocial personality disorders (Booth, Kirchner, Fortney, Ross and Rost 2000).
How the human body processes alcohol. About 20% of the ethanol alcohol consumed by an ordinary individual is immediately absorbed into the bloodstream through the mouth and throat, with the remainder being absorbed through the digestive system; the alcohol is then metabolized in the liver, but it can have an adverse effect on a wide range of physiological and psychological processes as well (Trimbrell 2005). According to Trimbrell (2005), "With fizzy drinks such as champagne and spirits mixed with fizzy soft drinks such as tonic water, the alcohol is absorbed more rapidly" (201). Because different people metabolize alcohol at different rates (and even within the same individual at different times), it is difficult to predict with any degree of accuracy the effects of a given amount of alcohol consumption on individuals (Trimbrell 2005).
Effects of alcohol on specific organs in the body. A number of chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, kidney, stomach or liver disease are associated with alcohol use (Booth et al. 2000).
Social Dangers of Drinking.
Adolescent problems. Alcohol is consistently cited as being the most commonly abused drug among adolescents today. According to Perkins (2002), "Anecdotal evidence and dramatic examples of negative consequences of college student drinking are readily found in counseling and hospital records and police reports as well as in the simple observation of property damage and litter following many campus social events" (91).
Risks associated with being intoxicated. When people are intoxicated, they tend to lose the inhibitions and common sense that prevent them from engaging in a number of high-risk behaviors that can contribute to adverse physical, emotional, academic and legal outcomes. In this regard, Perkins notes that, "Risky drinking behavior may be the cause or important contributing factor in many different academic, emotional, physical, social and legal problems experienced by undergraduates. Indeed, the picture of extensive harm to at least a significant minority of students on most campuses is clearly supported by the research" (92). In addition, the phenomenon of "blacking out" is a commonplace experience when people consume alcohol and it is possible for some to engage in countless types of behaviors that they would not otherwise consider during these periods and have no memory of doing so afterwards. Besides poor academic outcomes and problems with personal relationships, there is also the issue of injuries that can easily result from alcohol use. According to Perkins, "Injuries to oneself as a result of one's drinking are not an uncommon consequence" (92).
Consuming Alcohol can Lead to Alcoholism.
Definition/signs and symptoms of alcoholism. It is reasonable to suggest that all alcoholics began their path towards self-destruction with a single drink of alcohol and it is not necessarily the quantity consumed but the pattern of drinking that can lead to alcoholism. Indeed, it is possible (and even probable) that if some people drink a large quantity of alcohol in their first experience with the drug, they will seriously regret it by virtue of a ferocious hangover the next day and may never drink again. For others, though, there are certain signs and symptoms that are indicative of a growing dependence on alcohol that can result in alcoholism. In this regard, although definitions vary, Penick, Nickel, Powell, Liskow, Campbell, Dale, Hassanein and Noble (1999) report that, "The most frequently utilized definitions emphasize features associated with the consumption of alcohol itself, e.g., quantity and frequency of drinking, temporal drinking patterns, choice of beverage, drinking environments, age of onset, medical and social correlates, drinking sequelae, attitudes/expectations toward alcohol effects, and the physiological responses to alcohol and its withdrawal" (188). According to the clinicians at the Mayo Clinic, some of the well established symptoms of alcoholism include the following:
1. Drinking alone or in secret;
2. Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol consumed;
3. Not remembering conversations or commitments, sometimes referred to as "blacking out";
4. Making a ritual of having drinks before, with or after dinner and becoming annoyed when this ritual is disturbed or questioned;
5. Losing interest in activities and hobbies that used to bring pleasure;
6. Feeling a need or compulsion to drink;
7. Irritability when the usual drinking time nears, especially if alcohol is unavailable;
8. Keeping alcohol in unlikely places at home, at work or in the car;
9. Gulping drinks, ordering doubles, becoming intoxicated intentionally to feel good or drinking to feel "normal";
10. Having legal problems or problems with relationships, employment or finances;
11. Building a tolerance to alcohol so that an increasing number of drinks is required in order to feel alcohol's effects;
12. Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms -- such as nausea, sweating and shaking -- when alcohol is not used (Symptoms of Alcoholism 2009:1-2).
Short-term and long-term effects of alcoholism. The short-term effects of alcoholism include the adverse outcomes described above, but other consequences include slurred speech, disturbed sleep, nausea, and vomiting; in addition, depending on the amounts of alcohol consumed, individuals may be more likely to engage in drunken driving episodes, aggressive acts, including domestic violence and child abuse (Alcohol 2009). The long-term effects of alcoholism are truly life-threatening. When people who have been drinking large quantities of alcohol for sustained periods of time attempt to stop drinking, they can experience grand mal seizures that can occur at any time -- including when they are driving or operating heavy machinery, for example. According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free American, "Long-term effects of consuming large quantities of alcohol, especially when combined with poor nutrition, can lead to permanent damage to vital organs such as the brain and liver. In addition, mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy may give birth to infants with fetal alcohol syndrome" (Alcohol 2009:3).
Beneficial Effects of Drinking
Health and social benefits. People become more convivial when they have had a few drinks and so-called "cocktail parties" and the use of alcohol in company-sponsored events such as picnics and Christmas parties is a mainstay of American culture. In this regard, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America notes that, "The disinhibiting effect of alcohol is one of the main reasons it is used in so many social situations" (Alcohol 2009:3). Although there are no reliable studies on the subject, it is reasonable to suggest that tens of thousands of careers have been adversely affected because of uninhibited behaviors at such events because of alcohol consumption. Likewise, a number of studies have found that the consumption of certain alcoholic beverages such as red wine, for example, is beneficial for coronary heart disease patients. In this regard, McGregor, Murray and Barnes (2003) report that, "Much alcohol research has assumed that wine, beer and distilled spirits have equivalent effects on health,…