Alcohol

Main type

Alcohol is a drug that is liquid in form and categorised as a depressant. What is most commonly referred to as alcohol is actually ethyl alcohol or ethanol, which is made by fermenting natural ingredients such as fruit, grains or vegetables.

In fermentation yeast is used to break down the sugar content of a fruit or vegetable and turn it into a mixture of carbon dioxide and alcohol.

For the production of beers including ales and lagers, barley and hops are fermented. Wine is made from the juice of crushed grapes, with the incredible diversity in character and taste coming mainly from the different grape varieties used in its production. Different types of alcoholic drinks have varying alcoholic content, with beers and wines having generally a lower content of alcohol than so-called ‘spirits’ like gin, whisky and vodka. Creating a higher alcoholic content in spirits is due to a process called ‘distillation’, where a fermented liquid is heated causing the ethanol to evaporate, leaving the water behind. The ethanol vapour is captured and condensed into a much more powerful concentration of ethanol than would normally be produced through fermentation alone.

The production of alcohol dates back to prehistoric times. Archaeological evidence has shown that Neolithic man was fermenting beer as far back as 10,000 BC. The ancient Greeks were great drinkers of wine, as were the Romans, who brought wine to their conquered territories and traded wine with the rest of the world. In Europe in the middle ages it was the monks who were responsible for the fermenting of beer and wine and despite the Church’s association of drunkenness with sin, the popular images of the drunken monk became a widespread caricature. For hundreds of years beer or wine was the preferred drink for many people because it was considered safer than the often bacteria-ridden drinking water that was available.

The consumption of spirits, particularly gin, became prevalent in Britain in the 18thCentury, leading to social unrest, health issues and increased mortality. In the USA in the 20th Century, widespread consumption of whisky and its similar effects on public order and health led to prohibition in 1919, which saw the manufacture and sale of alcohol banned nationwide from 1920 to 1933.

Alcohol is the most consumed drug worldwide. Alcoholic beverages can be legally bought and consumed in most countries from the age of 18 or 21. Laws vary among countries about where alcohol can be consumed and many Islamic nations prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol for both its Muslim and non-Muslim citizens.

Other Types

Alcohol is present in an enormous variety of beverages. Brewing hops and barley creates the many different types of beer, lager, ale, stout and bitter.

Fermenting grape juice produces wine. In white wine, just the juice is fermented, whereas in red wine, both the juice and skin of red or purple grapes are used.

In sparkling wines a secondary fermentation process is induced and bubbles of carbon dioxide gas are formed in the wine bottle itself. Champagne is the most celebrated of all sparkling wines. It is produced according to strictly monitored regulations relating to the type of grape used, the conditions they are grown in and the region from which they are derived.

The distillation process is responsible for alcoholic drinks known as spirits that include gin, vodka, whisky, rum and many others. They have a much higher alcoholic content that fermented alcoholic drinks.

Alcoholic drinks are often mixed with non-alcoholic beverages and other flavourings to make cocktails, for example the Martini (vermouth and gin), the Pina Colada (white rum, pineapple juice, coconut cream) and the Bucks Fizz (champagne and orange juice).

Alcohol is known by many slang terms including booze, hooch, tipple, firewater and moonshine.

Major Effects

Short term effects

When someone drinks alcohol, it enters their bloodstream via the stomach and infiltrates the tissues of the body. The same amount of alcohol may affect people in different ways, depending on their weight, size, gender and age. Consuming food with alcohol slows down its effects as the alcohol is digested with the food rather than passing more quickly into the bloodstream.

The psychological effect of drinking alcohol is to lower inhibitions, which is why alcohol is associated with social situations. Alcohol also has the effect of impairing the judgement of individuals, making them feel more assured in carrying out actions that they may approach with more caution when sober.

Drinking large amounts of alcohol can cause someone to feel dizzy, slurring their words and experience nausea leading to vomiting. Motor functions are greatly compromised by alcohol consumption. Drinkers may experience difficulty walking and display poor co-ordination, which is why it is incredibly dangerous to operate machinery or drive a vehicle under the effects of alcohol.

Some people show greater aggression after they have drunk alcohol and incidents of domestic violence and fighting often feature alcohol as a contributing factor.

Binge drinking, where people drink large quantities over a short period of time, can lead to blackouts and loss of memory.

Some hours after large amounts of alcohol have been consumed, drinkers usually experience unpleasant physical symptoms including headache, nausea, tiredness and dehydration popularly known as a ‘hangover’.

Long term effects

If someone regularly consumes large amounts of alcohol over a protracted period of time then the effects can be very detrimental to health. Major organs like the brain and liver can be permanently damaged by prolonged, excessive alcohol consumption.

Long term effects of sustained alcohol consumption also include greater risk of cancer, especially those of the mouth, throat and stomach, high blood pressure leading to a higher risk of heart attack, reduced fertility and, in men, impotence.

Heavy drinking over a long period can also lead to alcohol addiction (alcoholism) where a drinker comes to depend on alcohol psychologically. Withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol include trembling or shaking, sweating, anxiety and hallucinations.

Production countries

Today alcohol is legally produced and consumed in most countries worldwide, subject to legislation specific to each nation, and alcoholic beverage production is a worldwide industry.

The largest company producing alcohol is the Anheuser-Busch Inbev company of Belgium whose top brands include Budweiser and Michelob beers.

Also among the top alcohol producing companies are Companhia de Bebidas das Americas (or AmBev) who are a subsidiary of Inbev and Diageo Plc in the UK, which produces world brand-leaders like Smirnoff Vodka, Johnnie Walker whisky and Guiness stout. Netherlands-based Heineken is another world leader in alcohol production, responsible for its eponymous lager as well as Amstel beer. Another big alcohol beverage company is Pernod-Ricard of France which produces such market leaders as Absolut Vodka, Jacob’s Creek wine and Havana Club rum among others.

SABMiller is a global alcoholic beverage company whose headquarters are in London. The company began in South Africa and is responsible for many brands including Grolsch, Miller and Peroni Nastro Azzura beer.

While many of these companies have their bases in specific countries it is important to note that the alcohol industry is a global one. The companies that dominate the global alcoholic beverage market are not tied to any specific country and have offices and production facilities all over the world.

Recently there has been a general decline in sales of beer in North America and Western Europe because of increased consumption of wine and spirits,

Increasingly, global alcohol beverage companies are investing heavily in the developing markets of India, China, Russia Central and South America where rising income per capita in those countries is driving an increased demand for premium alcoholic beverage brands.

France is the largest producer of wine in the world. It makes in the region of 50 million hectolitres every year, which is the equivalent to seven billion bottles. As a country France devotes a large amount of land to growing grapes for wine, with Spain being the only country with a larger total area of vineyards. France dates its winemaking history back to Roman times and is one of the world’s largest wine exporters.

France is the source a wide variety of different winemaking grapes that have been planted and grown in many other wine producing countries. France has also been the primary source of best practice when it comes to wine production, and its traditions have been copied by other countries throughout the world. Recently France has faced competition in terms of wine production not only from fierce local European rivals like Italy, but also emerging wine producers in North and South America and Australasia.

Such is France’s high production volume of wine that a surplus, known as a ‘wine lake’ has been created, meaning that France actually produces more wine than it can sell. As a result of this glut of wine, many millions of litres of wine are turned into industrial alcohol every year in a process called ‘emergency distillation’.

The market for Champagne has been immune from this phenomenon, however, remaining in high demand throughout the world.

As well as recorded alcohol production, however, there is a large amount of unrecorded alcohol production throughout the world. This includes private citizens legally making their own alcohol in ‘home-brew’ kits as well as illegal production intended for the so-called black or grey market.

In some countries like Poland, Sweden and Ireland, home brewing is legal whereas home distillation is illegal. In most countries where home brewing is legal, it is only allowed for personal use and not to be sold.

Drinks produced or distributed illegally for sale on black markets evade the taxes levied on alcoholic beverages by many countries. They may also carry many health risks because of the unregulated alcoholic content and the addition of potentially poisonous chemicals. Nevertheless, illicitly produced alcohol attracts many, especially in poorer countries, thanks to its low price.

Countries with a high volume of unrecorded alcohol production and consumption compared to recorded alcohol consumption and production are Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Estonia, Latvia and India.

In some poorer countries, unrecorded alcohol production may make up to half of the total consumption of alcohol. The World Health Organisation has estimated that unrecorded consumption accounts for over 60% of all alcohol consumed in the Indian subcontinent , around 50% of that in Africa and about 30% in Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Examples of home-produced alcohol are samogon in Russia, toddy in India, opaque beer in Africa and poitin in Ireland.

Facts and stats

Facts

  • Alcohol is the world’s most consumed drug. Here is a list of essential facts about alcohol:
  • What we drink as alcohol is a chemical called ethanol.
  • Alcohol is made by fermentation of fruit, vegetables or grains.
  • Distillation is a process that results in a stronger concentration of alcohol.
  • ABV stands for Alcohol By Volume and is shown on alcoholic drinks labels so you can see what percentage of the drink is made up of pure alcohol.
  • Alcohol is measured in units. One unit is equal to 10ml of pure alcohol.
  • The UK Government recommends that men should drink no more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day and women should drink no more than 2-3 units per day.
  • Alcohol is fattening because of the high sugar content. A glass of wine has the same amount of calories as a slice of cake and a pint of beer roughly the same as a hamburger.
  • There is a strong link between excessive consumption of alcohol and an increased risk of developing cancer.
  • Drinking excessively is related to a large number of health issues including ulcers, cirrhosis of the liver and the development of diabetes.
  • It is a myth that one can sober up’ after excessive alcohol consumption by drinking black coffee.
  • Alcohol affects testosterone levels in men, leading to low sperm count and impotence.
  • Alcohol interferes with a woman’s menstrual cycle and can cause infertility.
  • Drinking when pregnant can cause irreversible defects to the baby.

Stats

  • 29% of alcohol related deaths are due to accidents that occurred as a result of drinking alcohol.
  • Alcohol is a factor in a third of all burglaries, a third of all sex offences and half of all street crimes.
  • The biggest cause of alcohol related deaths – approximately one third - are a result of accidents. These deaths are more common among those in the16–34 age bracket.
  • Alcohol is either responsible or considered to be a contributing factor for 75,000 deaths a year in the US
  • Around 10 million people in the UK drink in excess of the recommended guidelines for consumption.
  • 1 in 3 adults is at risk from liver disease as a result of alcohol consumption.
  • In terms of calorific value a gin and tonic contains approximately 126 calories, a glass of wine roughly 175 calories and a pint of lager around 250 calories.
  • Out of all the deaths where alcohol is a factor, the second largest (around 20%) are due to cancer.
  • In 2008 there were 8,620 traffic accidents in the UK where the cause was the driver being in excess of the legal limit for alcohol consumption. These accidents resulted in the death or serious injury of 2,020 people. In the US nearly 30 people a day are killed in motor accidents that are the result of an alcohol-impaired driver.
  • Thanks to extensive national campaigns and increased stigmatisation, drink driving related accidents have fallen over three quarters in the UK since 1980.
  • The legal limit for alcohol consumption in the UK is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. In many European countries this limit is lower, most commonly 50mg per 100ml of blood.
  • Those suffering from depression are twice as likely to also have problems with alcohol.

Addiction Signs

The widespread cultural acceptance of alcohol consumption in many societies means that the signs of alcohol addiction in others or even oneself can be difficult to detect. If someone is consuming alcohol purely to feel better or to stop themselves feeling worse this may be strong evidence of a dependence on alcohol.

If someone is addicted to alcohol it may affect their behaviour in many ways. They might lie to others about the amount they drink. They might hide drink around the house or in locations they frequent.

Someone with alcohol dependence might neglect their responsibilities at home, work or school, perform poorly at everyday tasks or miss commitments because they are recovering from the night before.

If someone is drinking in a context or time of day not normally associated with drinking alcohol, for example at work or early in the morning, that may be another sign of alcohol addiction. Habitually smelling drink on someone’s breath in these contexts may give someone evidence of this alcohol abuse. If someone drinks in dangerous situations, such as when driving, it is another indicator of dependence on alcohol.

Outward physical signs like profuse sweating and trembling hands are often seen on people who have an alcohol addiction. These are the withdrawal symptoms from excessive and prolonged alcohol consumption.

A repeatedly dishevelled appearance, signs of financial problems, forgetfulness, unpredictable mood swings and isolation from friends and family are further indications that someone may be suffering from alcohol addiction.

Treatments

Treatment for alcohol addiction is a notoriously long and difficult process, partly due to the social acceptance of alcohol and the difficulty in avoiding contact with subliminal environmental pressures such as advertising. Many experts suggest that beating an alcohol addiction requires a fundamental change in lifestyle and outlook.

There are different perspectives to the treatment of alcohol addiction. There are those that view alcoholism as a medical condition or illness and advise a different approach to beating the addiction to those that see addiction as more of a conscious choice.

The majority of treatments begin with the addict admitting they have a problem with alcohol and then trying to reduce and discontinue their alcohol intake. Most experts recognise the importance of ongoing support for the addict to prevent them returning to alcohol in the future.

Alcoholism is acknowledged as being caused by many differing factors, including psychological issues. So treatment for alcoholism normally involves some kind of counselling or therapy to address these underlying causes. Group therapy sessions, where addicts support each other’s progress with getting over their addiction, are common.

Many organisations have been set up to help people with alcoholism and the life issues that have lead them to their addiction, including Alcoholics Anonymous. Most groups operate a zero-tolerance attitude to alcohol taking the view that addicts must banish all alcohol from their lives in order to beat the addiction. However, some alcohol addiction programmes do not require total abstinence of alcohol and instead seek to encourage addicts to moderate their intake

The initial stage of treatment for alcohol addiction requires detoxification from the drug. If an addict has become dependent on alcohol they may actually put their life at risk by stopping drinking suddenly. The withdrawal symptoms of alcohol are so acute that alcohol detoxification is controlled very carefully in order to protect the health of the addict. A doctor may prescribe drugs such as diazepam (commercially known as Valium) in order to treat the anxiety and depression that often comes with alcohol withdrawal. Those undergoing alcohol detoxification are often lightly sedated in the initial ten-day period in order to offset these withdrawal symptoms.

Rehabilitation normally follows detoxification and may be a ‘live-in’ program in a rehabilitation centre. Alternatively, the addict may undergo this phase as an outpatient. Not all people who are being treated for alcohol addiction will require a detoxification program. Some alcohol addicts might be identified as having a psychological addiction to alcohol that has not manifested itself into heavy drinking every day, and as such their physical withdrawal will be less painful and need not be medically managed.

There are also medically prescribed treatments that can assist in the rehabilitation of an alcohol addict. A drug called Antabuse (disulfiram) stops the body breaking down ingested ethanol, which causes extreme discomfort to someone who takes the drug and then drinks alcohol. The effect is similar to a heavy hangover and the aim is to discourage further drinking. Continuing to drink heavily whilst taking Antabuse can be fatal. There are a variety of other drugs that may be prescribed to an alcoholic in the short or long term that may either help prevent their craving for alcohol, or interfere with their body’s assimilation of alcohol.