“Drug addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disorder characterized by a compulsion to take a drug with loss of control over drug intake.” – Scripps Research Institute
Both alcoholics and drug addicts struggle with the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical consequences of their substance abuse. But what, exactly, is the difference between an alcoholic and a drug addict? The simple fact is: there is there is no difference. Both alcohol addicts and drug addicts fall under the same definition of “addiction” or as some call it, “substance abuse disorder.”
Some sobering statistics
More than 60 percent of ER visits are due to drugs or alcohol
Drugs, including alcohol, are believed to influence more than 80 percent of all domestic violence cases
An estimated 35 out of 36 alcoholics don’t receive the treatment they need
Alcohol is involved in 95 percent of all college campus violence
Alcohol is more widely available, and kills more teenagers every year than all street drugs combined (except for prescription drugs)
Social Acceptance, Availability and Perception
Society’s perception of these substances is in part the driver for the drug’s popularity and availability. Alcohol, for example, is widely available and its use is often encouraged in many settings. As a result, alcohol is the most widespread drug, just after nicotine, and is responsible for more deaths and more trips to the hospital than all other drugs combined. Part of the issue is this social acceptance. Alcohol is so widely used and encouraged, that many addicts do not even realize they have a problem.
Even those who are not addicted to any substance report feeling that drug addiction is a more pressing problem than alcoholism, even though the societal costs of the former are much greater. A reflection of this widespread view may be the difference in terms. A heroin addict is called exactly that—a drug addict. However, an alcohol addict is referred to under a different term, an “alcoholic.” However, both substances are drugs, and both can cause lifelong addiction.
A similar perception problem is also appearing in legal prescription pills, which are viewed by many as “safer” than illegal drugs. The result is a staggering rise in prescription pill addiction and fatalities that surpassed all illegal drugs combined in only a few years.
Even though Western society at large tends to view drug addiction as more harmful or costly than alcoholism, both can be very damaging, both to the user, his or her family, and the community at large. For an idea of what the general costs are for the use and abuse of these substances, here are some recent statistics:
Total annual cost of a drug, including crime, lost productivity, law enforcement, rehab and medical costs:
Alcohol: about $224 Billion
Illegal Drugs: about $181 Billion
Total annual emergency room visits:
Alcohol: More than 4 million trips to the ER
Other Drugs: More than 2.1 million trips to the ER, with the breakdown as follows:
Illegal use of pharmaceuticals: 27 percent
All illegal drugs: 21 percent
Death from a substance overdose is a serious risk, even for those who are not yet addicted. Teens and young adults are most likely to overdose on a drug or experience fatal alcohol poisoning. Note that the risk of overdose increases when these substances are mixed together, such as when alcohol is consumed at the same time as OxyContin. Most alarming is the rise in drug overdose fatalities reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which now cause more fatalities than car crashes. This is due to the rise in prescription drug abuse.
Alcohol: 80,000 deaths annually
Other drugs: 37,000 deaths annually
Rehabilitation is a lifelong, difficult process for both alcoholics and drug addicts. In fact, substance addiction is impossible to cure—the recovered alcoholic or addict is in danger of relapse at any time and so must reduce or ideally completely remove any exposure to that drug. For this reason, alcoholism may be a more difficult addiction to fight off. Unlike meth, heroin, and other hard drugs, which are sold through the black market in specific areas and by a limited group of dealers, alcohol is everywhere. Recovering alcoholics are faced with numerous triggers everywhere they look: ads on the TV, drink specials at restaurants, parties and dozens of bars and liquor stores in every town. With the support and care of loved ones, and the help of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, however, rehabilitation is possible, no matter how many triggers are present.
While both alcoholism and drug addiction fall under the same definition of substance addiction, there still are differences in terms of physical effects, the rehabilitation process and the dangers involved. Physically and culturally, every dangerous drug is different from another. It is cultural perceptions, legality and availability, however that set alcohol (and nicotine) apart.
It’s important to note that an addiction to alcohol and other drugs is a lifelong condition. An addict will never regain full control, and relapse is common. This is the very reason why reformed alcoholics must abstain completely and why pharmaceutical addicts must be monitored carefully when given any kind of new medication. The statistics on alcohol and drug rehab success rates are unfortunately difficult to come by, but some report a 70 percent rate of varying degrees of success for addicts who go through rehab.
The physical and societal costs of alcoholism and other drug addiction can be devastating, no matter which substance is involved. So which is worse? Well, the answer is subjective. Families who have struggled with a loved one’s heroin addiction suffer just as much as those who have struggled with a loved one’s alcoholism. No matter what the statistics say that year, every drug, including alcohol, can have devastating effects on an addict, and require the help and support of a drug counselor, a supportive community, and/or rehabilitation center.