Understanding Alcoholism: Its Nature, Causes & Possible Cure

For well over half a century we have poured billions of dollars into a failed attempt at understanding alcoholism. What’s its nature, causes, and possible cure?

Each promised breakthrough to understanding alcoholism has failed miserably.


I.   Problem of Confusion

II.  Reason for Confusion

III. Evidence

IV. Alternatives

V.   Resources

I. Problem of Confusion

There isn’t even agreement on defining alcoholism. Nor is there agreement on whether or not it is a disease. Even doctors disagree about this basic question.

Nor is there any agreement on its causes. Is alcoholism the result of genetics, an allergy, or nutritional deficiencies? Does it result from personality traits, environment, or some other cause or causes? We’re far from understanding alcoholism. Experts argue endlessly.

II. Reason for the Problem

understanding alcoholismThere’s a reason for all the chaos and conflict. It’s because virtually all research on alcoholism is based on assumptions that are clearly false. Therefore, the conclusions are destined to be false as well.


Most assumptions used for understanding alcoholism are based on a set of strongly-held beliefs about the subject. These were developed in the 1930’s by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The beliefs include these.

1. Alcoholics can never, ever learn to drink in moderation. Believers insist that “once a pickle, never again a cucumber.”

2. If alcoholics don’t stop drinking, they will always become progressively worse. They end up in an institution or dead. That’s from the effects of alcoholism.

3. Some alcoholics stop drinking but later resume consuming alcohol. They don’t simply resume their downward spiral at the point they stopped drinking. Instead, they resume where they would have been had they never stopped drinking.

4. Alcoholism is caused by an allergy to alcohol.

5. Consuming any alcohol, no matter how little, causes a “loss of control.” That is, consuming it causes alcoholics to have an uncontrollable desire to drink more and more.

6. Alcoholics are powerless over alcohol. They must abstain from it for the rest of their lives.

7. To achieve permanent abstinence, alcoholics must submit their will to God or a “Higher Power.”

These convictions are strongly held by members of AA. They’re also held by most people in the treatment industry. Indeed, most people in the industry are members of AA.

Change is Threatening

The scientific evidence, which contradicts these beliefs, is very threatening to true believers. It’s akin to challenging personal religious or political beliefs.

This is understandable. People who believe believe that alcoholics cannot drink any alcohol without loss of control have great fear. They worry that alcoholics will be tempted to try drinking in moderation with life-threatening consequences. So they see the issue as one of life and death.

III. Evidence

But the research evidence is clearly inconsistent with the basic tenants of the AA belief system. A large proportion of alcoholics can and do learn to drink in moderation. Scientific evidence of that fact has grown for nearly fifty years.

Downward Path

It proves there is no inevitable downward path for alcoholics who continue to drink. It shows that “loss of control” does not occur if alcoholics falsely believe that they are not consuming any alcohol.


The assertion that alcoholism is an allergy to alcohol is nonsensical. People who are allergic to pollen don’t seek out goldenrod to sniff. Those who are allergic to dust don’t keep dust fuzzies in their pockets to enjoy. If alcoholism were an allergy to alcohol, then the substance would be the only allergen that causes people to have an irresistible urge to consume it.

There is an allergy to alcohol commonly called the Oriental Flushing Reflex. But the unpleasant reaction to alcohol causes sufferers to avoid alcohol. They don’t seek it out and consume it uncontrollably.


The large number of atheists and agnostics who achieve sobriety disproves another AA theory. It’s that alcoholics must submit their will to God or a “Higher Power” in order to achieve permanent abstinence.

The basic beliefs of AA for understanding alcoholism are clearly false. Does this mean that alcoholics who are successfully abstaining should attempt to drink in moderation? No.

IV. Alternatives

But people who are concerned about their drinking can consider any of the free options for reducing drinking. That works for most people. But if it doesn’t, then people can consider an abstinence-only program.

Effective alternative programs are available. This means people can receive the help they need to live free of alcohol and drug problems.

There are many such programs. They include Women for Sobriety. SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training). Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). Moderation ManagementLifeRing Secular Recovery. And HAMS (Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support).

V. Resources for Understanding Alcoholism

AA. Alcoholics Anonymous. NY: AA.

Bufe, C. Studies Show Alcoholics Anonymous Is Ineffective. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.). Alcoholism. San Diego: Green. Pp. 72-81.

Fingarette, H. Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease. Berkeley: U. CA Press.

FitzGerald, K. Alcoholism is a Disease. In: Cozic, C., and Swisher, K. (Eds.). Chemical Dependency. San Diego: Green. Pp. 96-100.

Heather, N., and Robertson, I. Controlled Drinking. London: Methuen, 1983.

Sobell, M., and Sobell, L. Problem Drinkers: Guided Self-Change. NY: Guilford, 1993.