What is Alcohol Abuse? How Can It be Reduced?

What is alcohol abuse? How serious is it among young people? What is the trend in drunk driving? What help is available for alcohol problems? Or for alcoholism?


I. What is Alcohol Abuse?

II. Alcohol in America

III. Young People & Alcohol

IV. Youthful Drinking

V. Alcohol-Impaired Driving

VI. Health Problems

VII. Help is Avilable

                                       VIII. Resources

I. What Is Alcohol Abuse?

    • Some college students have different views about what’s alcohol abuse. They may not consider heavy drinking that leads to vomiting to be alcohol abuse. It’s simply having a good time and being “one of the gang.”
    • Many have a religion that requires abstinence from alcohol. To them, simply tasting an alcohol is not only alcohol abuse but a sin.
    • Many anti-alcohol activists have a similar view. Let’s consider two 20-year-old newlyweds. If they share a glass of Champagne at their reception, the activists believe that’s alcohol abuse.

Naturally, these varying views complicate defining the problem. And also reducing it. But our history and diverse population have created strong disagreements over what’s alcohol abuse.

II. Alcohol in American Society

Our Colonial past taught us that alcohol is the “good gift of God.” It’s to be used and enjoyed by all. That included small children.

alcohol abuseOur later temperance tradition taught us that alcohol is “demon rum.” It is the cause of almost all poverty, crime, violence, and other problems. Some towns were convinced that alcohol was the cause of virtually all crime. So they sold their jails on the eve of Prohibition.1

Temperance taught us fear and hostility toward alcohol. Much of that continues. Almost one of every five adults in the US today favors making drinking illegal. For everyone of any age. And for any reason. Not even Prohibition outlawed drinking. And tens of millions more are neo-prohibitionist.

Repeal of Prohibition left us with a society in which the majority enjoy alcohol in moderation. But a large minority (about 1/3) of the population abstains.

Alcohol Policy

Alcohol policy isn’t based on science, logic, or evidence. It results from a continuing struggle between those who wish drink and those who don’t want them to. Repeatedly throughout our history, movements have emerged to promote abstinence by persuasion. Always failing to succeed, they have then resorted to coercion.

III. Young People and Alcohol

Prohibition for those under age 21 currently enjoys wide support in the US. It’s also imposed by law. Often it is enforced with zero tolerance. Here’s just one example. A high school senior in Virginia was suspended for ten days. He violated his schools alcohol policy. How? By using mouthwash at school. He was also was required to attend a three day drug abuse program.

The list of horrors goes on and on. That’s zero tolerance in action. What does such a zealous level of intolerance accomplish? Research finds zero tolerance to have zero effectiveness.

IV. Youthful Drinking

Figure 1

People think that alcohol abuse abuse is a growing problem. The fact is quite the contrary. Both drinking and alcohol abuse among young people, as in the larger population, is on the decline. It has been for decades.

Consider the statistics on drinking among high school seniors.

what is alcohol abuse
Figure 2
Ever Consumed

The proportion of high school seniors who have ever consumed any alcohol is down (fig 1).2

Previous Year

The percentage of high school seniors who have consumed alcohol within previous year is down (fig 2).3

Previous 30 Days

High school seniors who have had any alcohol within the previous 30 days are down (fig 3).4

what is alcohol abuse
Figure 3
“Daily” (20 0f Previous 30 Days)

The proportion of high school seniors who have recently consumed alcohol daily is down (fig 4).5

Five or More Drinks

High school seniors who have had five or more drinks on an occasion within the previous two weeks are down (fig 5).6

Figure 4

Drinking among young people continues to drop. The proportion of those aged 12 through 17 who have had any alcohol during the previous month has plummeted. It fell from 50% in 1979 to 11.5% in 2014. That’s according to the federal government’s annual nation-wide survey. Thus, it has dropped 77%.7

what is alcohol abuse
Figure 5

College Students

College student drinking attracts much attention. But college freshmen drinking continues to drop. Freshmen entering college in 2014 reported the lowest rates of drinking in over 30 years. The proportion of those occasionally or frequently drinking beer dropped to an historic low. It was 74.2% in 1982. By 2014, it had declined to 44.5%.8

V. Alcohol-Impaired Driving

While we must do even more to reduce drunk driving, we have already achieved much. Alcohol-related traffic deaths have dropped steadily for decades.

The U.S. has a low traffic death rate (drunk, as well as sober). It’s a very safe nation in which to drive. And it’s been getting safer for decades.  In 1965 there were 5.30 traffic deaths per 100 million miles driven. By 2015, that number dropped to 1.12 deaths.9

Large Drop

Alcohol-related traffic fatalities have dropped from 60% of all traffic deaths in 1982 down to less than half that. Alcohol-related traffic fatalities per vehicle miles driven have also dropped dramatically. From 1.64 deaths per 100 million miles traveled (MMT) in 1982 down to about 1/3 death per MMT now.10

The proportion of alcohol-related crash deaths continues to fall. At the same time the proportion of traffic deaths not associated with alcohol continues to rise.

We’re winning the battle against alcohol-related traffic fatalities. The declining proportion of accidents involving alcohol is good news. But we can do even more to reduce drunk driving deaths. And through our individual actions we can do much right now to protect ourselves and others. Learn more at Drinking And Driving.

 VI. Health Problems

Moderate drinking causes better health and longer life than abstinence. But the abuse of alcohol, especially over many years, can lead to health problems and even death. For more, visit Alcohol and Health.


Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a condition caused by abusive drinking by pregnant women. So it’s completely preventable. Each and every case of FAS is a needless tragedy.

Victims suffer physical deformities and often mental deficiencies. They have these problems for their entire lives. Most cases are from alcoholics who drink heavily throughout their pregnancies. They usually do so along with smoking and often illegal drug use.

A study was made of of 400,000 women in the U.S. All drank during pregnancy. Not a single case of FAS occurred when consumption was under 8.5 drinks per week. Nor were any adverse effects on children found.

It appears that light and moderate consumption is safe. But no one knows for certain what level of drinking by a pregnant woman is completely safe. Moderate drinking might lead to some still unknown and probably minor problem. For this reason, the safest choice would be to abstain.

Of course, a pregnant woman should maintain good nutrition and see her physician on a regular basis throughout pregnancy. That’s also a chance to discuss the matter of drinking during pregnancy.

Cirrhosis of the Liver

Liver cirrhosis is probably the most widely recognized medical complication of chronic alcoholism. It is a grave and irreversible condition. It’s a progressive replacement of healthy liver tissue with scars. This can lead to liver failure and death.

Fortunately, the abuse of alcohol is down and so is cirrhosis. The death rate from cirrhosis has fallen dramatically. It was 18.1 per 100,000 people in 1973. By 2014 it dropped to 10.4.10

VII. Help  for Alcohol Abuse is Available

Moderation Management stresses balance, moderation, self-management, and personal responsibility to eliminate alcohol abuse.

Habit Smart  promotes the reduction of harmful behaviors and harm through habit change and wise choices.

HAMS  is a free information and support group for those who want to change their drinking behaviors. HAMS stands for Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the oldest and best-known “twelve-step” program. It’s not effective for most people.

Rational Recovery is an alternative to the spiritual nature of AA.

Secular Organizations For Sobriety (SOS). It’s also known as Save Our Selves. Mutual support helps members achieve sobriety.

SMART Recovery  (Self-Management and Recovery Training) views alcohol dependence as a bad habit. Members learn common sense techniques to break the habit.

LifeRing works by providing positive reinforcement of qualities that people already possess.

Women for Sobriety mutual support groups work to enhance the self-esteem of members.

Free and very low cost help is widely available. If one program doesn’t work, try another. Nothing works for everyone.

VIII. Resources: What is Alcohol Abuse?

1. Anti-Saloon League. Anti-Saloon League of America Yearbook, 1920, p. 28.

2. Johnston, L., et al. Monitoring the Future National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2015. Ann Arbor: U Mich, Inst Soc Res, 2016.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. US DOT. 2015 Motor Vehicle Crashes.

10. Nat Inst Health. Alcohol-Related Traffic Deaths. NIH Fact Sheets

11. Yoon, Y., et al. Liver Cirrhosis Mortality in the U.S. Wash: Nat Inst Health. Surveillance Report 100. Kochanek, K., et al. Deaths: final data for 2014. Nat Vital Stat Rep, 65(4), 1-19.