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Alcohol Dependence
Classification and external resources
ICD-10 F10..2
ICD-9 303
File:1904 Claim of Alcoholism being Disease.jpg

A 1904 advertisement labeling alcoholism a "disease".

The modern disease theory of alcoholism states that problem drinking is sometimes caused by a disease of the brain, characterized by altered brain structure and function.[1] The existence of alcoholism as a disease is accepted by some within the medical and scientific communities,[2] although critics exist. The American Medical Association (AMA) had declared that alcoholism was an illness in 1956. In 1991, The AMA further endorsed the dual classification of alcoholism by the International Classification of Diseases under both psychiatric and medical sections.


Alcoholism is a chronic, life-long disease, such as diabetes. However, if managed properly, damage to the brain can be stopped and to some extent reversed.[3] In addition to problem drinking, the disease is characterized by symptoms including an impaired control over alcohol, compulsive thoughts about alcohol, and distorted thinking.[4] Alcoholism can also lead indirectly, through excess consumption, to physical dependence on alcohol, and diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver.

The risk of developing alcoholism depends on many factors, such as environment. Those with a family history of alcoholism are more likely to develop it themselves;[citation needed] however, many individuals have developed alcoholism without a family history of the disease.[citation needed] Since the consumption of alcohol is necessary to develop alcoholism, the availability of and attitudes towards alcohol in an individual's environment affect their likelihood of developing the disease. Current evidence indicates that in both men and women, alcoholism is 50–60% genetically determined, leaving 40-50% for environmental influences.[5]

In a review in 2001, McLellan et al. compared the diagnoses, heritability, etiology (genetic and environmental factors), pathophysiology, and response to treatments (adherence and relapse) of drug dependence vs type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and asthma. They found that genetic heritability, personal choice, and environmental factors are comparably involved in the etiology and course of all of these disorders, providing evidence that drug (including alcohol) dependence is a chronic medical illness.[6]

Genetics and environment

Genes play a large role in the development of alcoholism. Twin and adoption studies have shown that a person's genes can predispose them to developing alcoholism. However, genetic predisposition is not necessary to develop alcoholism. Similarly, not everyone with a genetic predisposition develops the disease. Current evidence indicates that in both men and women, alcoholism is 50-60% genetically determined, leaving 40-50% for environmental and other influences.[5]


The diagnosis of alcoholism is often made using the DSM-IV criteria for alcohol dependence,[7] which requires three or more of the following symptoms to occur within the same 12-month period:

  1. tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
    • a need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect
    • markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of substance
  2. withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
    • the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance
    • the same (or a closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms
  3. the substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended
  4. there is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use
  5. a great deal of time is spent in activities to obtain the substance, use the substance, or recover from its effects
  6. important social, occupational or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of substance use
  7. the substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance (e.g., continued drinking despite recognition that an ulcer was made worse by alcohol consumption)


Alcoholism is a chronic, life-long disease. In many cases, the patient is unable to regain the ability to drink in moderation.[8] However, by ceasing the consumption of alcohol, the patient can limit and prevent further complications.

Chronic complications

Complications due to the excessive consumption of alcohol can include:


The Scottish physician Thomas Trotter (1760–1832), was the first to characterize excessive drinking as a disease, or medical condition.[9]

The American physician Benjamin Rush (1745–1813), a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence — who understood drunkenness to be what we would now call a "loss of control" — was, perhaps, the first to use the term "addiction" in this sort of meaning.[10]

My observations authorize me to say, that persons who have been addicted to them, should abstain from them suddenly and entirely. 'Taste not, handle not, touch not' should be inscribed upon every vessel that contains spirits in the house of a man, who wishes to be cured of habits of intemperance.[10]

Rush argued that "habitual drunkenness should be regarded not as a bad habit but as a disease", describing it as "a palsy of the will".[11] His views are described by Valverde[12] and by Levine[10]:

Rush’s contribution to a new model of habitual drunkenness was fourfold: First, he identified the causal agent—spiritous liquors; second, he clearly described the drunkard’s condition as a loss of control over drinking behavior—as compulsive activity; third, he declared the condition to be a disease; and fourth, he prescribed total abstinence as the only way to cure the drunkard.

The modern theory of alcoholism as a disease was first put forward by E. Morton Jellinek in his famous[13] book "The Disease Concept of Alcoholism".[14] The American Medical Association had declared that alcoholism was an illness in 1956.[15]

In 1980, the American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs (now the Council on Science and Public Health) noted that "alcoholism is in and of itself a disabling and handicapping condition". Between 1980 and 1991, medical organizations, including the AMA, worked together to establish policies regarding their positions on the disease theory. These policies were developed in 1987 in part because third-party reimbursement for treatment was difficult or impossible unless alcoholism were categorized as a disease. The policies of the AMA, formed through consensus of the federation of state and specialty medical societies within their House of Delegates, state, in part:

"The AMA endorses the proposition that drug dependencies, including alcoholism, are diseases and that their treatment is a legitimate part of medical practice."

In 1991, The AMA further endorsed the dual classification of alcoholism by the International Classification of Diseases under both psychiatric and medical sections.

Controlled drinking

The disease theory is often interpreted as implying that problem drinkers are incapable of returning to controlled drinking, and therefore that treatment should focus on total abstinence. Some critics have used evidence of problem drinkers' returning to controlled drinking to dispute the disease theory.

The first major empirical challenge to this interpretation of the disease theory followed a 1962 study by Dr. D. L. Davies.[16] Davies' follow-up of 93 problem drinkers found that 7 of them were able to return to "controlled drinking" (less than 7 drinks per day for at least 7 years). Davies concluded that "the accepted view that no alcohol addict can ever again drink normally should be modified, although all patients should be advised to aim at total abstinence"; After the Davies study, several other researchers reported cases of problem drinkers returning to controlled drinking.[17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25] In 1976, a major study commonly referred to as the RAND report, published evidence of problem drinkers learning to consume alcohol in moderation.[26] The publication of the study renewed controversy over how people suffering a disease which reputedly leads to uncontrollable drinking could manage to drink controllably. Subsequent studies also reported evidence of return to controlled drinking.[27] Similarly, according to a 2002 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) study, about one of every six (17.7%) of alcohol dependent adults in the U.S. whose dependence began over one year previously had become "low-risk drinkers" (less than 14 drinks per week and 5 drinks per day for men, or less than 7 per week and 4 per day for women).[28]

However, many researchers have debated the results of the above studies. A 1994 followup of the original 7 cases studied by Davies suggested that he "had been substantially misled, and the paradox exists that a widely influential paper which did much to stimulate new thinking was based on faulty data."[29] The most recent study, a long-term (60 year) follow-up of two groups of alcoholic men by George Vaillant at Harvard Medical School concluded that "return to controlled drinking rarely persisted for much more than a decade without relapse or evolution into abstinence."[8] Vaillant also noted that "return-to-controlled drinking, as reported in short-term studies, is often a mirage."

Legal considerations

In 1988, the US Supreme Court upheld a regulation whereby the Veterans' Administration was able to avoid paying benefits by presuming that primary alcoholism is always the result of the veteran's "own willful misconduct." The majority opinion written by Justice Byron R. White echoed the District of Columbia Circuit's finding that there exists "a substantial body of medical literature that even contests the proposition that alcoholism is a disease, much less that it is a disease for which the victim bears no responsibility".[30] He also wrote: "Indeed, even among many who consider alcoholism a "disease" to which its victims are genetically predisposed, the consumption of alcohol is not regarded as wholly involuntary." However, the majority opinion stated in conclusion that "this litigation does not require the Court to decide whether alcoholism is a disease whose course its victims cannot control. It is not our role to resolve this medical issue on which the authorities remain sharply divided." The dissenting opinion noted that "despite much comment in the popular press, these cases are not concerned with whether alcoholism, simplistically, is or is not a "disease.""[31]

The American Bar Association "affirms the principle that dependence on alcohol or other drugs is a disease."[32]

Current acceptance

The current mainstream scientific and medical view is that alcoholism is a disease, although some debate on this topic still occurs.[33][34]

In 2004, the World Health Organisation published a detailed report on alcohol and other psychoactive substances entitled "Neuroscience of psychoactive substance use and dependence".[35] It stated that this was the "first attempt by WHO to provide a comprehensive overview of the biological factors related to substance use and dependence by summarizing the vast amount of knowledge gained in the last 20-30 years. The report highlights the current state of knowledge of the mechanisms of action of different types of psychoactive substances, and explains how the use of these substances can lead to the development of dependence syndrome." The report states that "dependence has not previously been recognized as a disorder of the brain, in the same way that psychiatric and mental illnesses were not previously viewed as being a result of a disorder of the brain. However, with recent advances in neuroscience, it is clear that dependence is as much a disorder of the brain as any other neurological or psychiatric illness."

The American Society of Addiction Medicine and the American Medical Association both maintain extensive policy regarding alcoholism. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes the existence of "alcoholism" as the equivalent of alcohol dependence. The American Hospital Association, the American Public Health Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American College of Physicians classify "alcoholism" as a disease.

In the US, the National Institutes of Health has a specific institute, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), concerned with the support and conduct of biomedical and behavioral research on the causes, consequences, treatment, and prevention of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems. It funds approximately 90 percent of all such research in the United States. The official NIAAA position is that "alcoholism is a disease. The craving that an alcoholic feels for alcohol can be as strong as the need for food or water. An alcoholic will continue to drink despite serious family, health, or legal problems. Like many other diseases, alcoholism is chronic, meaning that it lasts a person's lifetime; it usually follows a predictable course; and it has symptoms. The risk for developing alcoholism is influenced both by a person's genes and by his or her lifestyle."[36]


Critics such as philosopher Herbert Fingarette,[37] the sociologist Robin Room,[38] psychotherapist Dr. Stanton Peele,[39] psychologist Nicholas Heather,[40] and Alcoholics Anoymous co-founder Bill Wilson[41] reject the disease model of alcoholism along with the disease model of addiction in general. The psychologists Jeffrey A. Schaler and Thomas Szasz also reject the classification of all mental illnesses, including alcoholism and addiction, as diseases.[42]

Some critics of the disease model argue alcoholism is a choice, not a disease, and stripping alcohol abusers of their choice, by applying the disease concept, is a threat to the health of the individual; the disease concept strips the substance abuser of responsibility. A disease cannot be cured by force of will; therefore, adding the medical label transfers the responsibility from the abuser to caregivers. Inevitably the abusers become unwilling victims, and just as inevitably they take on that role. They argue that the disease theory of alcoholism exists only to benefit the professionals' and governmental agencies responsible for providing recovery services, and the disease model has not offered a solution for those attempting to stop abusive alcohol and drug use.[43]

These critics hold that by removing some of the stigma and personal responsibility the disease concept actually increases alcoholism and drug abuse and thus the need for treatment.[43] This is somewhat supported by a study which found that a greater belief in the disease theory of alcoholism and higher commitment to total abstinence to be factors correlated with increased likelihood that an alcoholic would have a full-blown relapse (substantial continued use) following an initial lapse (single use).[44] However, the authors noted that "the direction of causality cannot be determined from these data. It is possible that belief in alcoholism as a loss-of-control disease predisposes clients to relapse, or that repeated relapses reinforce clients' beliefs in the disease model."


Template:Trivia Many doctors have been loath to prescribe drugs to treat alcoholism, sometimes because of the belief that alcoholism is a moral disorder rather than a disease, according to Dr. Bankole Johnson, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia.[45] Dr Johnson's own pioneering work has made important contributions to the understanding of alcoholism as a disease.[46]

Certain medications including opioid antagonists such as naltrexone have been shown to be effective in the treatment of alcoholism, although research has not yet demonstrated long-term efficacy.[47]

Frequency and quantity of alcohol use are not related to the presence of the condition that is, people can drink a great deal without necessarily being alcoholic and alcoholics may drink minimally or infrequently.[48]

See also


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  2. Alcohol - Frequently Asked Questions, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  3. Bartsch, Andreas J.;Homola, Gyorgy; Biller, Armin; Smith, Stephen M.; Weijers, Heinz-Gerd; Wiesbeck, Gerhard A.; Jenkinson, Mark; De Stefano, Nicola; Solymosi, Laszlo; and Bendszus, Martin, Manifestations of early brain recovery associated with abstinence from alcoholism, Brain 130(1) (2007) pp36-47.
  4. Morse, RM; Flavin, DK (August 26, 1992). "The definition of alcoholism, The Joint Committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine to Study the Definition and Criteria for the Diagnosis of Alcoholism". The Journal of the American Medical Association 268 (8): 1012–4. doi:10.1001/jama.1992.03490080086030. PMID 1501306.
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  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Levine, H.G., "The Discovery of Addiction: Changing Conceptions of Habitual Drunkenness in America", Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Vol.39, No.1, (January 1978), pp.143-174. (Reprint: Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Vol.2, No.1, (1985), pp.43-57.) Available at [1]
  11. Valverde (1998, p.2). Rush expounded his views in a book published in 1808.<re>Rush, B., An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind: With an Account of the Means of Preventing, and of the Remedies for Curing Them, Thomas Dobson, (Philadelphia), 1808.
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  45. Hathaway, William Headache pill eases alcohol cravings Hartford Courant, October 10, 2007
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