Deconstructing a Modern Myth: Is Alcohol Really Safer Than Illegal Drugs?

By Pat Matuszak

One of the most dangerous myths surrounding alcohol abuse is that alcohol is a less damaging substance than illegal drugs. Studies about the effects of alcohol abuse on the body and the psychological toll it takes prove otherwise, but popular perception continues to support the belief that alcohol abuse is a lesser addiction. The way this myth got started and keeps growing is simple to understand.

The first seed of this myth grows from the way alcohol is purchased. Some form of alcohol is sold in grocery stores in most communities, and that implies approval by health and legal authorities. All anyone needs to buy alcohol is a driver’s license showing they are of age. No prescription is required as it would be for narcotics, opiates and other addictive drugs. A walk down the supermarket wine or liquor aisle presents clever marketing for dozens of flavors and styles of alcohol and even suggestions on how to serve them with food. Upscale restaurants give alcohol legitimacy as a relaxing social experience delivered by servers who politely cater to their customers’ tastes. Alcohol is spoken of as a beverage, not a “substance.”

If someone wants to purchase an illegal substance, the shopping situation would be much less comfortable. People who abuse prescribed medications often go to great lengths, tricking their doctors to get refills or stealing drugs from relatives’ unguarded prescription bottles. Abused substances aren’t usually taken in front of polite company, parents or children. Their use is covered in secrecy. The whole affair tells us something dangerous is going on. We see the opposite with alcohol use — having a drink in public settings is the accepted rule.

It’s a short leap from accepting alcohol use to believing it is a lesser evil with less damaging effects on one’s health. But the opposite is true. Just withdrawing from alcohol addiction can prove fatal, as was recently seen in the death of 39-year-old actor Nelsan Ellis who tried to withdraw from alcohol addiction on his own. After two attempts at getting sober through clinics, Ellis’ family said the HBO star decided to go it alone. The result was death from blood infection, liver damage, kidney failure, low blood pressure and heart failure.

Ellis fit the profile doctors warn about — if someone has been through alcohol withdrawal multiple times, they are more likely to die from organ failure with each attempt. One clinician, commenting on Ellis’ death, said, although people with an addiction feel like dying during withdrawal, those addicted to alcohol are more likely to do so.1 In a Lancet study in the UK, alcoholism rated an “overall harm” score of 72, over 20 points higher than heroin and crack cocaine.3

Woman getting drunkNeurological damage from both abuse and withdrawal can give addicts difficulty making sensible choices, and that endangers their lives. Withdrawal from alcohol can cause delirium tremens, or DTs, and other symptoms include seizures that raise blood pressure and damage the heart, which may already be weakened from the alcohol abuse. Vitamin deficiency from both abusing and withdrawing can weaken all the body systems. It can take years for organs to recover from alcohol addiction, though improvement begins as soon as withdrawal is successful. Removing a powerful substance that the body has adjusted to processing can have dangerous side effects, so medical supervision during detox is vital for safety.

Of course the alternative to detox is certainly not safer. Abusing alcohol causes body systems to fail slowly over time in the same ways they may fail from stress during withdrawal. Because the fatal path of alcoholism is like a slow-motion fall, the consequences to relationships have time to grow larger as well. The addict’s behavior impacts more and more family, friends and co-workers who try to help and may be replaced by those who enable addictive behaviors. Al-Anon cites many crippling second-hand scars alcoholics leave on those in relationship with them.

Another problem that develops in conjunction with alcohol abuse is that impaired judgment and inhibited self-control take over one’s thinking processes. The result is often the abuse of others in psychological or physical acts of violence. A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report finds the following results:

Conservative estimates of sexual assault prevalence suggest that 25 percent of American women have experienced sexual assault, including rape. Approximately one-half of those cases involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both… and alcohol’s effects on cognitive and motor skills contribute to alcohol-involved sexual assault.4

A circle of physical risk surrounds anyone near alcohol abuse. Over time, the central nervous system is damaged by alcohol abuse, and this may cause work, machinery or automobile accidents. Alcohol is a factor in traffic deaths to the extent that one person dies from an alcohol-related car accident every 51 minutes of every day in the United States.5

The myth of alcohol abuse being a less dangerous addiction is just that: a fiction not based on fact, but on popular opinion. We need to put aside assumptions grown from stereotypes to understand the serious need for medical treatment and effective compassion for those addicted to alcohol.


1Diebel, Matthew. “Nelsan Ellis tragedy: Think alcohol is killing you? Quitting can also be deadly.” USA Today, July 11, 2017.

2 Stoddard, Tim. “3 Reasons Why Alcohol Is Actually The Most Dangerous Drug.”, January 2, 2015.

3 Nutt, David, et al. “Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis.” The Lancet, Volume 376, Issue 9752, November 1, 2010.

4 Abbey, Antonia, Ph.D., et al. “Alcohol and Sexual Assault.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Accessed August 15, 2017.

5Impaired Driving: Get the Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Accessed August 15, 2017.

Articles posted here are primarily educational and may not directly reflect the offerings at The Oaks. For more specific information on programs at The Oaks, contact us today.