What is alcoholism?


Most people enjoy an occasional tipple and for many this is an enjoyable, harmless and sociable experience.  Some people drink more often and still have no problem with it affecting their lives adversely or having the overwhelming need to grab for another bottle.  Why do some of us become addicted to alcohol when others seem unaffected?   Here we give you the facts, figures and helpful resources to arm yourself with knowledge and ultimately power. 


There are many web sites with different and quite conflicting facts and figures on alcoholism.  What makes one person a heavy drinker and another an alcoholic?  If you can’t resist that drink, even if you only have one drink per evening then you have a drink dependency.  If you had no alcohol in the house would you feel uncomfortable?  Do you understand how a unit of alcohol is measured and do you know how many units are considered safe? 

  • Men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units a day.
  • Women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day.

'Regularly' means drinking these amounts every day or most days of the week.

If you drink above these recommended daily limits then you risk damaging your health.

One alcohol unit is measured as 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol - this equals one 25ml single measure of whisky (ABV 40%), or a third of a pint of beer (ABV 5-6%) or half a standard (175ml) glass of red wine (ABV 12%).

Please remember that even drinking below these levels can still be dangerous in certain circumstances.  If you are driving, about to go swimming, operating machinery or about to take part in strenuous physical exercise then consuming even low levels of alcohol can have adverse effects.

The difference between heavy drinking and alcoholism like any addiction, it becomes an 'addiction' or 'disorder' when it creates a problem for you or others around you and you are unable to simply stop. Here are some factors that may show you have an addiction - is your alcohol consumption:

  • Unhealthy (creating health problems)
  • Creating a problem for you or others around you
  • Impacting you socially
  • Impacting your relationship
  • Affecting your mood
  • Are you unable to simply stop? 

Why do people use alcohol?

Different people drink for different reasons, however, many drinkers give the same reasons for enjoying the effects of alcohol.  The most common reasons include feeling happy, more confident, less anxious, less depressed and they enjoy a feeling of lack of inhibition.  These effects are known to be short lived and are replaced with feelings of depression, self-doubt and the inevitable hang-over. 

Most people tend to take their first drink when quite young and usually through peer pressure.  The attitude to alcohol consumption in the home of younger people seems to also have a marked affect on whether they start drinking or not.  We also know that people who start to drink alcohol at a young age also, more frequently than not, go on to experiment with drug use.

The cost

How do you count the cost of alcoholism as the knock-on effects are endless?  Should we count the emotional cost of broken families?  Should we include the cost to the NHS Service for the treatment of alcohol related accidents and disease?  Should we count the cost of alcohol related-crimes and incarceration?  The alcohol and crime related figures are quite disturbing. 

According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies – In England and Wales, approximately 70% of crime audits published in 1998 and 1999 identified alcohol as an issue, particularly in relation to public disorder.

In an analysis of data drawn from 41 probation areas between 1 April 2004 and 31 March 20054, the Offender Assessment System Data Evaluation and Analysis Team found that:

  • over one-third (37%) of offenders had a current problem with alcohol use
  • a similar proportion (37%) had a problem with binge drinking
  • nearly half (47%) had misused alcohol in the past
  • 32% had violent behaviour related to their alcohol use
  • 38% were found to have a criminogenic need relating to alcohol misuse, potentially linked to their risk of reconviction
  • Research has found that alcohol had been consumed prior to the offence in nearly three-quarters (73%) of domestic violence cases and was a ‘feature’ in almost two-thirds (62%). Furthermore, almost half (48%) of these convicted domestic violence offenders were alcohol dependent

The good news is there is help and treatment available. 

Alcohol Treatment

Find a therapist

Living with and caring for an alcoholic

Health and alcohol

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