Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD): What Is It? Alcoholism?

Alcohol use disorder or AUD. Is this just another name for alcoholism? For alcohol abuse? Exactly what is it?

To understand alcohol use disorder, it is helpful to understand the terms that came before it.

Alcohol Use Disorder: Background

alcohol use disorder

The major authority defining such matters is the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). [Link works.]It’s published by the American Psychiatric Association. The first DSM was published in 1952. It categorized alcoholism as a personality disorder. But it did not define it or provide any criteria to diagnose it.

The second edition (DSM-II) followed in 1968. Like the first, it categorized alcoholism as a personality disorder and provided no diagnostic criteria. But it noted that withdrawal provided the best evidence of alcoholism.

In 1980, DSM-III brought major changes. Alcoholism was no longer a personality disorder. The term alcoholism itself was replaced by a new category of conditions. It called them substance use disorders.

Alcohol disorders were listed as either alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence. A diagnosis of dependence required evidence of either tolerance or withdrawal.

In 1987, DSM-III was revised and published as DSM-III-R. It modified the number of criteria required for diagnosing abuse and dependence. It was followed by DSM-IV in 1994. DSM-IV was replaced by the current edition, DSM-5, published in 2013.

Under DSM-IV, if any one of four listed behaviors applied, the person was diagnosed as an alcohol abuser. In the current edition, if any two of 11 listed behaviors applies, the person has an alcohol use disorder (mild). This greatly increases the chance of being diagnosed.

Under DSM-IV, if any three of seven listed behaviors applied, the diagnosis was alcohol dependence. In the current edition, if four of 11 behaviors apply, the diagnosis is moderate alcohol use disorder. If six or more apply, the diagnosis is severe alcohol use disorder.

New Alcohol Use Disorder Criteria

There has been a fundamental, science-based change in the current edition. It is the rejection of the “either-or” theory. Alcoholics Anonymous has promoted that theory for 80 years. But science does not support it. The former dichotomy is now a spectrum of alcohol misuse. It’s consistent with scientific evidence.

Alcohol Use Disorder: Implications

Although this is a major improvement, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence expressed alarm.  The new criteria established for alcohol use disorder will classify millions more Americans as having alcoholism.1 It warned this.

“Some experts are concerned that people who binge drink in their late teens and early adulthood could be seen as mild alcoholics. According to, about 40 percent of college students engage in binge drinking frequently enough that they might qualify for the new diagnosis, but only 5 percent of graduates over 26 are current alcoholics. Dr. Allen Frances, who chaired the task force that wrote the earlier edition of the DSM, said, ‘The DSM-5 decision to lump beginning drinkers with end-stage alcoholics was driven by researchers who are not sensitive to how the label would play out in young people’s lives.'”2

Inflated Statistics

Dr. Frances asserted that overly broad definitions of alcohol use disorder will create “false epidemics” and “medicalization of everyday behavior.”

Many experts agree. Australian researchers estimated that about 60 percent more people would be diagnosed as addicted to alcohol under the new criteria. Another prominent expert is Dr. Thomas Babor. He observed this. “The chances of getting a diagnosis are going to be much greater, and this will artificially inflate the statistics considerably.'”3

Diverted Resources

This will divert scarce resources away from alcoholics to people with life problems that usually resolve themselves.

The same expansion of diagnoses exists throughout DSM-5. For example, a person who grieves the death of a loved one for over two weeks is now mentally ill. The person has “major depressive disorder.” Medicalizing normal grief will be a bonanza to psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies.

Similarly, “Excessive eating 12 times in 3 months is no longer just a manifestation of gluttony. And gluttony in the easy availability of really great tasting food. DSM 5 has instead turned it into a psychiatric illness called Binge Eating Disorder.”4

Increased Medical Expenses

alcohol use disorder

Such expansion, of course, will lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in additional medical expenses. And it’s for people who don’t need any medication or treatment.

That problem may not concern the two-thirds of the DSM’s members who wrote the new alcohol criteria. They disclosed having financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry or other conflicts of interest.5

Soon after the new criteria were published, researchers reported this. “[N]early one-third of adults in the United States have an AUD at some time in their lives. But only about 20 percent seek AUD treatment.”6 The researchers also claimed that the number of people suffering the new condition had grown over the previous 11 years. So concerns about the inflation of problems are obviously well-founded.

Alcoholism became alcohol dependence in 1980. Then it expanded to become alcohol use disorder in 2013. Diagnostic levels for AUD are now much lower. So a large number of ordinary people are suddenly suffering alcohol use disorder. And the federal government is already suggesting the need for more medical treatment for the “epidemic.”

To understand the new criteria, just follow the money.


Popular Books

1 New Category of “Alcohol Use Disorder” May Not Improve Alcoholism Diagnosis.

2 _______. ibid.

3 Urbina, I. Addiction Diagnoses May Rise Under Guideline Changes. New York Times, May 11, 2012.

4 Nat Eating Disord Assn. [Link works.]

5 Cosgrove, L. et al. Financial ties between DSM-IV panel members and the pharma industry. Psy Psy, 75(3):154-60.

6 Nat Inst Health. AUDs Often Untreated. News Release.