Everybody’s got a favorite drinking
How about the time Tom Collins
chugged Gatorade and gin on the game bus to Springfield and blew
lunch? Yuck-yuck! Way to go, Collins!
Or the time Brandi Alexander
sloshed down an entire pint of vodka with cokes at Nestor’s Neutron
Burger, then passed out in the locked rest room and had to be
rescued by firemen? Smooth move, Brandi! (Not!)
Everybody’s got a favorite drunk,
How about Dudley Moore in “Arthur?”
Or Nicholas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas?” W.C.
Fields and Dean Martin practically made careers out of being
plastered — or pretending to be.
And what about jokes? Ever hear
the line that you’re not really drunk if you can lie down on
the floor without holding on?
Or how about the one where the
drunk loses his car keys and looks for them on the other side
of the street because the light’s better there? Budda-boom!
Still, when you stop and think
about it, you realize that booze, and the problems it can cause,
isn’t funny. In fact, according to 2007 research, 17.6 million
people in America have serious drinking problems.
And at least 16,000 Americans will die this year in traffic accidents
caused by drunk drivers.
You get a better idea of how
unfunny booze can be when you look at it objectively, and not
get sucked in by all the ads that try to make it look cool to
chill out with a couple of tall ones before (and after) everything.
Because the fact is that alcohol
is a drug — one of the most potentially dangerous drugs we know
of. And just as with other drugs, we’re learning more and more
about it all the time.
In this pamphlet we’re going
to talk about what alcohol is, how it works, and how it affects
And while the facts that we’ll
be talking about aren’t all that funny, they are true.
And they’re definitely worth
considering when it comes time to choose about booze.
Alcohol has helped to grease
the wheels of life on earth for quite a while now.
In fact, some anthropologists
believe that agriculture, the first activity that humans performed
which paved the way for civilization, grew out of our thirst
for alcohol as much as our hunger for food.
They think that our ancestors
got into farming not just to grow food (they could find that
in a lot
of places), but to insure a steady supply of ingredients needed
for batches of prehistoric home-brew.
Somehow, early cave folk deduced
that the juice that collected when grapes or other fruit sat
a while was way different from ordinary juice.
It had more of a kick, for one
And when they drank it, early
people acted differently, too.
They were less afraid of the
local saber-toothed tiger, for example — and more likely to
press the issue, if they had a club handy.
What made the juice different
— and what we know now triggers the effects we associate with
drinking — was the process of fermentation.
It’s what happens when the sugars
in fruits or grains are converted into alcohol molecules.
Early humans may not have looked
smart, and they may not have completely understood the process
at first, but they stayed with it and their descendants gradually
came to learn that the lowly yeast cell, which occurs naturally
on the skins of grapes and other fruits, is the key to the fermentation
And it’s fermentation, we know,
that puts the kick in liquor and the cheer in beer.
The problem is that it also lights
the fuse in booze.
The fuse in booze that really
makes things confused is the chemical ethanol, or ethyl
Ethanol is just one type of alcohol,
but it’s the only one that can be safely consumed by humans.
Other forms include methyl and butyl alcohol, which are toxic
poisons and used mostly in medical and industrial products, like
rubbing alcohol and antifreeze.
That doesn’t mean that ethanol
isn’t poisonous — it is. It’s just less toxic than its chemical
cousins. It can cause the same problems, even coma or death,
at higher dosage levels.
So how do you measure a particular
drink’s alcohol potency — and potential toxicity? By the percentage
of pure ethanol present.
In the case of beer and wine,
alcohol content is expressed as a simple percentage. With liquor,
though, the numbers are measured in something called proof.
That’s a good question with an
easy answer, but some drinkers drink their whole lives (literally)
without ever quite understanding what the heck the proof numbers
mean on the label.
It’s simply the percentage of
alcohol content multiplied by two.
To find the percentage of ethanol
in liquor, do the opposite and divide the proof by two. This
means that 86-proof whiskey is 43 percent alcohol, and 100 proof
vodka is 50 percent alcohol.
The places you’re most likely
to bump into ethanol, measured in proof or percentage, are inside
bottles of beer, wine and liquor. How much is in each? Let’s
- Beer ranges in alcohol content from 3.2 to 6 percent,
with most U.S. beers averaging about 4.5 percent (“light”
- Wine contains 9-14 percent alcohol, although certain
types (which are “fortified” with extra alcohol) can
hit 20 percent. Like light beer, wine coolers pack less punch,
ounce per ounce. (Though they can get you just as drunk, if you
work at it.)
- Liquor is a concentrated form of alcohol produced by
distilling already-fermented alcohol. The ethanol content of
most liquors (or “distilled spirits”) ranges from 40-50
percent, although some so-called “neutral spirits”
can hit 95 percent.
Regardless of the form it comes
in, once booze is out of the bottle and in someone’s system,
it’s all basically the same stuff.
That’s because a beer contains
roughly the same amount of alcohol as a shot of liquor or a glass
of wine. The line between “hard liquor” and beer and
wine is mostly imaginary; beer and wine contain more water, that’s
..Booze & the Body
Okay. Now we’re at a place where
things get interesting: tracking what alcohol does in the body.
And getting alcohol into the
body is what an awful lot of people spend an awful lot of their
time trying to do.
What happens when they succeed?
Let’s take a look, and follow
a typical swallow along a typical tangle of human physiology.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves,
because some alcohol is absorbed before it’s swallowed. That’s
because small amounts enter the bloodstream on contact with the
lining of the mouth and throat. This instant intake zips to the
brain, and produces a drink’s earliest effects.
The rest of the swallow goes
where all swallows go — and we don’t mean Capistrano. Since
alcohol isn’t digested, what sloshes into the stomach is either
absorbed through its lining or passes on into the intestines,
where it filters into the bloodstream. From there, ethanol races
to all body organs and tissues, including the brain.
How long the ethanol remains
active, though, is a function of body metabolism and the rate
it’s broken down by the liver.
Since the liver burns off alcohol
at a fixed rate (about an ounce of 100-proof liquor an hour),
slurping down more causes profound change in both body and mind.
This change is known informally
by a lot of names, but scientifically by one: intoxication.
Signs of mild intoxication include
decreased inhibitions, impaired concentration and coordination,
and increased relaxation. Slurred speech, staggering, and serious
impairment — even death — can occur at progressively higher
levels, as toxic effects pile up.
Since alcohol is eliminated at
a fixed rate, several factors determine how much a person is
One is body size. This means that a small person drinking the
same amount as a bigger person feels the effects more. Why? Pound
for pound, there’s more alcohol in his or her system.
Another factor is drinking rate.
A person who chugs three or four beers gets hit harder than
someone who sips the same amount over a longer period.
Why? Because the liver enzymes
that metabolize alcohol become saturated, and the unprocessed
booze just keeps banging into the brain.
When blood alcohol reaches a
certain level (0.08 percent throughout the U.S. since 2004),
a drinker is legally impaired. At higher levels, a drinker’s
drunker. At still higher levels, a drinker’s dead drunk — and
sometimes dead, period.
Absorption is also influenced
by other factors, including gender and whether a drinker drinks
on a full or empty stomach. Alcohol is absorbed faster on an
empty stomach, so it’s a good idea to eat something while drinking,
if you want to stay sober.
Still, the main point is simple:
If you drink booze faster than your liver can metabolize it,
you get drunk. Inevitably.
And when you’re drunk, the only
thing that sobers you up is time.
Now that we’ve taken a look at
what booze does in the body, let’s look at what it does in the
mind, and consider why people drink.
The two issues are pretty closely
linked. Because the main reasons people give when they’re asked
why they drink involve psychological payoffs they say they get
from booze: to relax and feel less self-conscious, to fit in
or be sociable, or express themselves better.
But if you look deeper, you see
something else underneath, and find such unacknowledged reasons
as depression, loneliness, low self-esteem, and other problems.
And that’s worth thinking about,
because something that researchers have consistently noted over
the years is that people who drink to escape problems or pump
up their self-confidence are more likely to become problem drinkers.
And problem drinking creates
even bigger problems.
Then there’s sex. It may just
be the biggest unacknowledged reason for drinking of all. As
American humorist Ogden Nash pointed out a long time ago (“Candy
is dandy, but liquor is quicker”), alcohol can work
wonders in turning a simple attraction into a serious affair.
The problem is that it can also
turn a night out into a nightmare. Just ask the tens of thousands
of young people who turned into young parents last year, when
normal sex drives got even more inflamed with alcohol.
And if you don’t believe them,
ask the thousands of kids who get caught up every year in allegations
of date rape: He says she was asking for it. She
says she was only asking him to stop.
Alcohol’s ability to deflate
inhibitions as it inflates desire hasn’t been lost on advertisers,
either — at least not those willing to capitalize on human weakness
and insecurities, which includes most of them.
That’s why beer commercials have
traditionally been among the most sexually-oriented ads on American
Advertisers pull out all the stops — in the form of giggles
and wiggles at bars and on beaches — to sell lonely people on
a single idea: Drink our beer and you might get lucky. These
The problem is that drinkers
usually don’t get lucky — and even when they do, they
don’t. Because studies show that drinking and unsafe sex go together
like, well, unsafe sex and AIDS.
Drinkers just don’t see what
all the fuss is about and, besides, they’re invulnerable anyway,
A final item to consider in reviewing
the relationship between sex and alcohol is something Shakespeare
noted hundreds of years ago, when he pointed out that alcohol
“provokes the desire but it takes away the performance.”
Scientific studies and clinical
reports bear out the Bard’s conclusion, as do problem drinkers
themselves, who often report sexual problems, ranging from impotence
and frigidity to outright deterioration of the sexual organs.
Need any other motivation
not to get blasted on a regular basis?
..Booze, Bodies & Babies
Since you asked (You were
thinking about asking, weren’t you?), there are a few more reasons
to avoid problem drinking, and most involve risks to health.
But the fine points can get complicated.
Because the fact is that alcohol
produces few serious risks to health when used in moderation
— and it may even be beneficial: Statistics show that moderate
drinkers live longer than both heavy drinkers and abstainers.
Still, when used to excess, booze
can (and does) produce massive, irreversible damage to the brain,
central nervous system, liver, and other body systems.
Still, and if after reading the
last two statements all that sticks in your head is the idea
that drinking might be good for you (“Sez here
booze is good for you! Dude!!!“),
remember that seems true for moderate drinkers only.
Making things really tricky
is the fact that most problem drinkers used to be moderate
drinkers, and the line that separates them can be as fuzzy as
the white line (or flashing red-and-blue lights) in a drunk’s
..Drinking & Pregnancy
Other drinking-related health
problems are more clear-cut, especially the risk to a fetus during
And it’s not just heavy
drinking during pregnancy that increases the risk of birth defects;
as little as two drinks a day can reduce birth weight, while
two ounces of alcohol a week can raise the risk of spontaneous
In fact, researchers today think
that risks may even increase with a woman’s drinking before
That means that if you drink heavily before pregnancy, your baby
could still have problems, even if you stop drinking during
So if you’re a drinker and you’re
thinking about going into the mom business some time soon, think
about your drinking. Then think about giving it up. And
if you need to, give it up.
It could be the best present
anyone will ever give your baby.
Probably the best-known problem
any of us associates with drinking is the disease known as alcoholism.
Everybody knows what alcoholism is, but nobody really seems able
to define it very well. We’ll just call it a state of dependence
on alcohol that causes a variety of physical and emotional problems.
Still, why worry about alcoholism?
You’re young, right?
That’s good enough for starters,
right there. Researchers say that the number of young people
currently affected by alcoholism is higher than it’s ever been.
Some estimate that at least a
million teens and young adults in the United States display at
least some of the warning signs of alcoholism, while many more
are problem drinkers.
What are the warning signs?
Common ones include blackouts
(periods of total or near-complete amnesia while drunk), frequent
heavy drinking, and morning drinking, and a laundry list of drinking-related
What do you do if you’ve got a problem?
It’s as available as a telephone
call to a local counseling center or alcohol treatment program.
And if that still sounds too complicated, just call information
and ask for “AA.”
Just remember, it’s not a big
deal to ask for help. But it’s a shame to ignore a problem as
big as booze can be.
So where does all this leave
us? Smarter, if not wiser — and hopefully, in a better position
to consider alcohol and its place in our lives.
If you drink, and statistics
and common sense show that you will at one time or another, be
careful in the way you drink.
Don’t drink to escape problems
and don’t drink and drive, because driving drunk is a choice
that no one has a right to make.
If you don’t drink, don’t feel
embarrassed or out of it because of it. You’re making a smart
choice. Just don’t feel like you have to be hero because of it
— though sometimes it works out that way, too.
If you’re still not sure what
to do, think about the points we’ve raised and then decide whether
or not drinking is something you want in your life at the moment.
Because there’s one thing more
important than what you choose about booze, and that’s that you
choose — that you choose and not let others decide for you or
let the automatic pilot in your head do what seems easiest.
And when you do choose, remember
this: The only thing you just gotta have to be happy is yourself,
under your own control. And if you’ve got that, you just plain
can’t lose, booze or no booze.