Both alcohol and drug addiction are rampant problems in Australia. Substance use is common among young people, and alcohol is the most common substance used by youth.
A survey of Australian secondary students aged between 12 and 17 years, found that 74% had tried alcohol, 15% had used cannabis, and 17% had used inhalants at some time in their lives (1).
Among young adults in Australia, an estimated 12.7% of people aged 16-24 have a substance use disorder, with higher rates among young men than young women (around 16% of males and 10% of females). Harmful use of alcohol was the most commonly reported substance use disorder (at around 9%) (2).
It’s safe to say that there are many similarities and differences between alcohol and drug addiction and that both are often tied in with mental health. In fact, the use of some substances may increase the risk of developing certain disorders (3). However it is often unclear whether one issue causes the other. An Australian survey found high rates of comorbidity in those with substance use disorders (4). 1 in 5 Australians with a substance use disorder also met criteria for an affective disorder and 1 in 3 met criteria for an anxiety disorder.
So, what are the main differences between alcohol and drug addiction? Is alcohol a drug? The answers to these questions are not simple but are worth discussing when it comes to understanding addiction.
Alcoholism is an addiction to the consumption of alcoholic drinks or, alcohol dependency. The theories surrounding alcohol and whether or not it’s a drug have been heavily debated among scientists, researchers, and addiction specialists for many years.
Alcohol is regularly sold to, purchased and consumed by millions of Australians on a daily basis. The way society has accepted and normalized alcohol consumption has made alcohol seem much more harmless than it is from a scientific standpoint. However, 32% of drug treatment episodes in 2015–16 were primarily for alcohol, making it the most commonly treated drug in Australia (5).
Alcohol is a drug and is considered a depressant. It can slow down vital functions of the body resulting in slurred speech, unstable motor skills, and slowed reaction times. It can also have mind-altering effects and change the way people perceive reality and distorts judgment as well.
People can overdose on alcohol, also referred to as alcohol poisoning, if they consume over their limit. This usually depends on how much and how fast they have been drinking. A high blood alcohol level in someone’s body who has consumed a lethal amount of alcohol can lead to vomiting, seizures, unconsciousness and even death. Not to mention, if those who become physically dependent on alcohol don’t consume a certain amount every day to keep withdrawal away, they can experience DTs or delirium tremens.
DTs are a very serious symptom of withdrawal that may lead to death without medical intervention. This kind of withdrawal makes alcohol a particularly dangerous and difficult addiction to overcome without treatment. While alcohol continues to be regarded separate from drugs, its consumption is viewed casually by most people, potentially normalizing substance misuse especially in social settings.
Signs of Alcohol Addiction:
- Hiding drinking habits, stashing or hiding liquor
- Needing large quantities of alcohol to feel effects
- Binge drinking
- Blacking out when drinking
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
- Not having control over alcohol consumption limit
Drug addiction, also known as Substance Use Disorder, describes the chronic disease characterized by overuse and misuse of a substance that leads to dependency. It’s important to know the signs of drug addiction, no matter what drugs are in question. These substances may be both legal and illegal, as addiction does not discriminate. When someone becomes addicted to a substance, they can no longer control their usage of a drug, often leading to misuse that reaches an unhealthy level affecting one’s overall health.
While initial use of the drug was voluntary, the body’s chemical dependency on the drug grows rapidly, causing the person to lose control over the reward circuit in their brain. When using becomes central to someone’s life, they are faced with a constant cycle of cravings and withdrawal, leading the mind to seek out more of the substance continually. While some people falsely believe that those who are addicted to drugs are simply too “weak” to stop or lack a moral compass, the reality is that drug addiction is a complex disease that can alter the way the brain works, making it very difficult for a person to walk away from their dependence.
Ending an addiction takes much more than strong will and motivation. In fact, often when people go about quitting their addiction on their own, they become much more susceptible to overdose. When someone abstains from a drug for a period and then decides to use again, they may consume too large of a dose, which can be potentially fatal. Thankfully, researchers have discovered many ways in which people can use monitored medication to help them overcome the terrible side effects of withdrawal to end the cycle of misuse successfully. Along with supervision and medication, people are also given therapy to help deal with the underlying issues that lead to their addiction.
Many people try and fail to abstain from their drug addiction during treatment, often referred to as relapse. While relapse is often a very normal part of treatment for drug addiction, it’s important to know that it’s not a sign that treatment isn’t working. Recovery is a long road that takes a lot of work to achieve.
Main Differences and Related Issues
The stigma surrounding drug use is much more severe than alcohol use, even when a person has suffered consequences due to their drinking being out of control. Because illicit drug use is also closely associated with many other illegal activities, people who use those substances are more likely to have serious legal issues, specifically involving possession. Since alcohol is legal and can be readily purchased almost anywhere, society’s attitude towards it is different than towards other drugs. It’s much more common to joke about having too many glasses of wine than to joke about injecting heroin.
People can be addicted to both illicit and legal drugs, as well as alcohol, but the addictions feel different to each group. People who misuse illicit drugs are often ostracized, making them feel isolated from society and are afraid to seek help for fear of being seen as a criminal. People who are addicted to alcohol often feel that their situation is more common; their recovery and abstinence are seen as strong and admirable by others. Both kinds of addictions are very real and should be treated equally.
It will take some time for people to regard drug addiction the same way in which they view alcoholism, and battling stigma is one of how it will happen. Those who become addicted to illicit substances or misuse legal prescription drugs should not feel ashamed to come forward and seek help. All addictions should be perceived as a disease that is in need of treatment, and the person who has a substance use disorder is deserving of love, help, and respect.
(1) White, V. B., & Bariola, E. (2013). Australian secondary school students’ use of tobacco, alcohol, and over-the counter and illicit substances in 2011. Report prepared for: Drug Strategy Branch Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. December 2012.
(2) Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2011. Young Australians: their health and wellbeing 2011. Cat. no. PHE 140 Canberra: AIHW
(3) Riggs, P., Levin, F., Green, A. I., & Vocci, F. (2008). Comorbid psychiatric and substance abuse disorders: recent treatment research. Substance Abuse, 29(3), 51-63.
(4) Teesson, M., Slade, T., & Mills, K. (2009). Comorbidity in Australia: findings of the 2007 national survey of mental health and wellbeing. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 43(7), 606-614.
(5) Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017. Alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia 2015–16: key findings. 2017