alcoholism, a disease?

Alcoholism: Disease or Addiction?

For a long time, it has been advocated that alcoholism is a condition that affects those who were already in good health. The idea of referring to depression as a disorder has far-reaching consequences on how people in the society perceive alcoholics. For example, the assumption that intoxication is an illness means that it is uncontrollable and therefore justifiable. On the opposite, substance dependence is a lifestyle decision in which the problem drinker actually prioritizes the rewards of the habit over the effects of the habit. The issues that a person who drinks alcohol experiences are the product of their actions and decisions. Alcoholism, therefore, should not be viewed as a disease but as an addiction that is a result of personal choices.

The Theory of Alcoholism as Science

The theory of alcoholism as science fails to explain why people consume excessive amounts of alcohol. Individuals with addictions seek specific experiences which they only gain by partaking in alcohol. With time, they develop a dependence on the addictive substance to get the desired experience which when done to the extreme becomes totally consuming and could be destructive. The American Medical Association only defines alcoholism as "an illness characterized by preoccupation with alcohol and loss of control over its consumption, such as to lead usually to intoxication if drinking; by chronicity by progression and by a tendency towards relapse. It is typically associated with physical disability and impaired emotional, occupational and/or social adjustments as a direct consequence of persistent excessive use" (AMA). Such a definition implies that an alcoholic, just like any other individual suffering from a legitimate disease like cancer, could get help from a hospital. Also, this definition uses the word loss of control, making it seem like the individual who abuses alcohol has been stripped of their free will. Contrarily, there is no evidence that the individual's will is overpowered when they drink. The definition by the medical association also fails by implying that alcoholism makes one lose control over the amount of alcohol they consume. Such a statement negates the fact that the decision to drink as well as the amount to consume lies with the drinker and is not an inevitable disease over which they have no control. It is misleading to imply that alcohol controls humans when in fact we control alcohol as humans are not just animals that can be controlled by their instincts and impulses.

The Genetic Component

Another argument that supports the theory of alcoholism as a disease is based on studies which hypothesized a link between genetics and alcoholism. The study states that up to 18% of children sired by parents who are alcoholics also end up as alcoholics themselves (Kimura and Higuchi 214). It can, however, be argued that the biggest percentage, 82%, of those children do not become alcoholics, an indication that alcoholism is not a hereditary disease. Also, it is possible that the 18% that develops alcoholism do not acquire it through genes but learn it from their alcoholic parents. This is highly likely because parents have a huge influence on their children as it is from them that children learn many things including behavior and habits. Furthermore, studies on the issue of the genetic components of alcoholism investigate societies and families by only focusing on genes, brain functions, and biochemical markers. The studies fail to prove that alcoholism is caused solely by genetic factors. Those opposed to the theory of alcoholism being a disease view problem drinking as a convenient excuse which has been anointed by science which describes it as a loss of control for individuals who are not willing to take responsibility for their habits (Rudy, Fingarette and Ludwig 429).

Alcoholism as a Disease

Proponents of the theory of alcoholism being a disease argue that medical expertise is needed to treat the symptoms of alcoholism. It is important to note that alcoholics can successfully kick the habit and become productive members of the society once more. It is, therefore, irrational to describe alcoholism as a disease. To better understand the rationale behind this argument, one should consider the plight of someone with cancer or diabetes. Such an individual cannot simply wake up three or four years down the line and make a decision to make the disease go away. Regardless of the amount of determination the individual has, this does little to ameliorate their condition. With cancer and many other diseases, even if an individual successfully beats it and becomes healthy again, it is not because they made different choices or began acting differently. For alcoholics, however, the individual has a chance to return to a normal life provided they have the determination and also decide to take personal action.

Treatment and Economic Considerations

Continuing with the example of cancer, an individual who has been diagnosed with cancer of the lungs is presented with various treatment options even if it is considered terminal. For a cancer patient, only medical interventions can be presented as treatment options. Examples of treatment options for cancer include an operation to cut out the tumors or radiation chemical therapy to either shrink or kill off the cancerous tissue. Other diseases, some of which do not have a known cure yet like AIDS also have various options for medical interventions that are aimed at keeping the patient alive for a longer period. A definition for a disease states that there must be some form of medical intervention that can be used to abate the disease (Cambridge medical dictionary).

Alcoholism cannot be termed as a disease as it does not allow for this. The forms of treatment available for alcoholics include attending classes, undergoing therapy as well as various other treatments from behavioral and mental health specialists. These forms of treatment, however, do not qualify as medical interventions. Alcoholism cannot be treated through surgery or through a cocktail of drugs that would mitigate the effect of the poor choices an individual makes when under the influence. Proponents of the alcohol disease theory might argue that this makes alcohol an incurable disease. For the medical community, however, an incurable disease means something totally different. A disease is only categorized as incurable if its cure has not yet been discovered. With alcoholism, there just isn't a medical cure, but it can be cured through determination and personal action. This disqualifies alcoholism as a disease.

Economic Impact

Any condition that is termed as a disease requires the individual to be provided with health insurance payments and employment benefits like workmen's compensation, as well as other government benefits. Alcoholism has huge economic costs which can be direct or indirect. The major economic cost that can be directly attributed to alcoholism is lower productivity by employees who have alcohol-related problems, mostly male workers. Another cost to the society comes in the form of resources used in health care for alcoholics which is estimated to be over $ 24.6 annually. Health insurers pay for the treatment of alcoholics just like other people with real diseases which means that the government actually pays more for their health insurance. The amount of taxpayers' money spent on alcoholics is too high considering that these are individuals who prioritize drinking such that it became an addiction. Studies reveal that every year there are more than 88,000 deaths from alcoholism in the United States (NIAAA). A high number of violent crimes can also be linked to alcoholism as shown by a US Department of Justice Report on Alcohol and Crime which revealed that around 40 percent of violent crime in the country is perpetrated by an individual under the influence of alcohol (Goodwin 16).


Alcoholism results from a poor choice or series of bad life decisions and can have a devastating impact on an individual's life. Due to its adverse effects on the individual and the society as a whole, it certainly is worth investigating for both psychologists and mental health professionals. Nevertheless, this is not enough to qualify it as an actual disease as this would absolve alcoholics of their personal responsibility. Calling problem drinking a disease implies that there might be no cure and therefore no hope for the affected individuals. Alcoholism is only a product of poor choices that can be brought about by a number of other factors like stress. Any individual afflicted by alcoholism can turn their lives around and live a productive life once more. The ability to make such changes debunks the view that alcoholism is a disease. Instead of categorizing problem drinking as a disease, the society should encourage such individuals to take responsibility for their lives and reduce the adverse effects it brings.

Works Cited:

American Medical Association. "The Definition of Alcoholism." AMA Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Cambridge Medical Dictionary. English Definition of "disease." Disease Noun. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Goodwin, Donald Watson. Alcoholism. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981. Print.

Kimura, Mitsuru and Susumu Higuchi. "Genetics Of Alcohol Dependence". Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 65.3 (2011): 213-225. Web.

NIAAA. "Alcohol Facts And Statistics | National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism (NIAAA)." N.p., 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Rudy, David R., Herbert Fingarette, and Arnold M. Ludwig. "Heavy Drinking: The Myth Of Alcoholism As A Disease." Contemporary Sociology 18.3 (1989): 429. Web.

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