Inaccurate | Misleading | Incomplete Information About Drinking Alcohol is Inexcusable

Inaccurate | Misleading | Incomplete Information About Drinking Alcohol is Inexcusable

One of my biggest frustrations is the continued inaccurate, misleading, incomplete information about drinking alcohol that repeatedly appears in the news, medical practices, treatment program descriptions, and our social and cultural environments (school, workplace, community, legal and law enforcement, religious practices, family, political arena and the like).

Take this April 6, 2017, article appearing on USA Today’s Network, How a drinking habit becomes a drinking problem.”

In my opinion, it neglects to use readily available, 21st century neuroscience and alcohol misuse-related scientific research to accurately:

  • define a drinking problem and describe alcoholism as but one example of a drinking problem
  • define alcoholism as the developmental chronic brain disease it is and explain what it takes to develop this disease
  • explain why it is the complex nature of this brain disease (in other words, it’s the disease – alcoholism – itself) that makes it so difficult for a person with alcoholism to understand the kind of help they need.

Now I grant you, this is not a long article and likely the author was asked to write a 700 word piece. But what was written perpetuates the old, inaccurate, misleading and incomplete information about drinking alcohol. And that’s a problem — a huge problem.

For example, the article starts with this opening statement:

Battling addiction of any kind might be best referred to as a lifelong journey. “Journey” is a word addicts will tell you describes the treatment plan they must follow every day of their lives.

Inaccurate | Misleading | Incomplete Information About Drinking Alcohol is Inexcusable

Inaccurate | Misleading | Incomplete Information About Drinking Alcohol is inexcusable with the abundance of neuroscience and alcohol misuse-related scientific research now available.

This opening section continues with a list of some of the reasons a person starts drinking in excess, and then it presents the following header and paragraphs:

Is it a problem?

So, for the occasional drinker, how much a night is too much? And how do you know if you have a problem?

The answer varies, because no two alcoholics are the same. What they drink will differ, as will the amount they drink.

By this point, I was incredulous. Seriously? The author gives a title of “How a drinking habit becomes a drinking problem,” and then launches into battling addiction and developing alcoholism, as if the only drinking problem to be concerned about is alcoholism.

Then the writer asks how much a night is too much for the occasional drinker [emphasis added] and explains “[t]he answer varies, because no two alcoholics are the same.”

This is patently misleading and incomplete information.

The occasional drinker generally does not have a drinking problem, assuming the writer is defining the occasional drinker in his mind as someone who stays within “low-risk” drinking limits. These limits are defined by the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) as no more than 7 standard drinks a week, with no more than 3 of the 7 on any day, for women, and no more than 14 standard drinks a week, with no more than 4 of the 14 on any day, for men. A standard drink is defined as 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of beer, and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof, “hard” liquor.

In fact, according to the NIAAA’s research…

The Majority of People with a Drinking Problem are not Alcoholics

When a person exceeds “low-risk” drinking limits, they are considered “at-risk” for developing a more serious drinking problem. Common terms to label these drinking problems include: binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism. All alcoholics go through a period of “at-risk” drinking, but not all “at-risk” drinkers become alcoholics.

But it was the third section in the article, “Treatment,” that put me over the top on my frustration meter and prompted me to write this post. Again, quoting from the article:

The journey toward sobriety only begins when the drinker admits there is a problem. 

And herein lies the problem…

Inaccurate, Misleading, Incomplete Information About Drinking Contributes to a Person’s Lack of Awareness About the Problems with Their Drinking

The alcoholic generally knows at some level they have a problem. But they think they should be able to control their drinking like other people who don’t have problems when they drink alcohol or who manage to regain control after an occasional binge. So they try to drink less to prove they can control it, which does nothing to address their underlying chronic brain disease (alcoholism).

In other words, the alcoholic’s problem is not only their drinking, it’s also the chronic brain disease, itself. [FYI – the medical definition of addiction, whether it’s an addiction to alcohol or other drugs, is that it is a chronic brain disease.] Thus understanding the disease can help a person understand the nature of their problem and be more open to getting the kind of help they need to fix it.

Dr. Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), has given a wonderful explanation of all this. It was part of her “Addiction: a Disease of Free Will” lecture given at the 168th Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (2015):

…[describing] addiction as a chronic brain disease, is sort of a theoretical concept. Say that you have two parents with a very sick child, and they go to the hospital, and the doctor says, “Your child is in a coma because he has diabetes.” And he explains to them that diabetes is a disease of the pancreas, a chronic disease of the pancreas. This does not explain why that child is so severely ill. What explains it is the understanding that the cells in the pancreas can no longer produce insulin, and we need insulin in order to be able to use glucose as an energy source, so without it, the cells in our body are energy-deprived—which explains why this child is so sick.

So when we speak of addiction as a chronic disease of the brain, what does it mean? How does it help us explain the devastating changes in behavior of a person that’s addicted, where even the most severe threat of punishment is insufficient to have them stop taking drugs, where they are willing to give up everything they care for in order to take a drug? How does “a dysfunction in the brain” help us understand that?

Dr. Volkow goes on and provides great detail on how brain science has informed us.

And this is where I get frustrated. Articles like this USA Today Network article perpetuate the inaccurate, incomplete, misleading information about drinking, drinking problems, causes of drinking problems and the myriad of variations thereof. This is what allows the disease of alcoholism to progress in some individuals. It’s also what provides a “cover,” if you will, for the kinds of drinking problems that are not alcoholism but are detrimental to the drinker’s health and to others on the receiving end of their drinking behaviors.

The other kinds of drinking problems include: binge drinking, heavy social drinking and alcohol abuse. Drinking behaviors are behaviors that result when a person drinks more than their liver can metabolize (get rid of) and the excess ethyl alcohol chemicals in the alcoholic beverages consumed changes brain functioning until they are metabolized by the liver. This changed brain functioning results in drinking behaviors (behaviors the person likely wouldn’t engage in if sober), such as: driving while impaired, verbal/physical/ emotional abuse, and unplanned or unwanted sex, sexual assault. Thus it’s not just alcoholism that’s a drinking problem. It’s any drinking pattern that results in drinking behaviors.

News journalists, medical practitioners, treatment program providers, and spokespersons in our social and cultural environments (school, workplace, community, legal and law enforcement, religious practice, family, political arena and the like) need to get on board with the new facts if we’re ever going to help people understand all of this.

Bottom line…

Inaccurate, Misleading, Incomplete Information About Drinking Alcohol is Inexcusable Today

It’s inexcusable because it perpetuates all the stereotypes about drinking habits, drinking problems, alcoholism, alcoholics, and treatment that have us so stuck, todayIt’s inexcusable because there is 21st century neuroscience and alcohol misuse-related scientific research that is readily accessible from a host of national and international organizations.

To name just a few, these organizations include: the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the American Board of Addiction Medicine, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Additionally, there are hundreds of public agencies, non-profits, medical schools and brain institutes across the country and around the world conducting and reporting this kind of alcohol-misuse related research, as well.

It is their collective research that allows the rest of us to accurately:

  • define a drinking problem and describe alcoholism as but one example of a drinking problem
  • define alcoholism as the developmental chronic brain disease it is and explain what it takes to develop this disease
  • explain why it is the complex nature of the brain disease of alcoholism (in other words, it’s the disease itself) that makes it so difficult for a person with alcoholism to understand the kind of help they need.

As for why I singled out this article over other similar articles, it’s because of the reach it had.

According to USA Today Network’s August 17, 2016, press release, the USA Today Network reached 110MM unique visitors in July 2016. In other words – it has a big, big reach. And thus an article appearing on the USA Today Network has a big, big reach and a big, big opportunity to perpetuate inaccurate, misleading and incomplete information about drinking alcohol.

They also have a big, big opportunity to get it right.

So What is Accurate Information About Drinking Alcohol

As you can imagine, I’ve written about that, too 🙂

Much of the research I reference above is more fully explained with resource links in these two posts:

I appreciate you reading this post and encourage you to share it. Only with accurate, complete, science-based information about drinking alcohol can we truly help people who drink too much, whether or not they’ve developed the chronic brain disease of alcoholism.

Note: to be clear, current terminology generally defines any drinking pattern that exceeds “low-risk” limits as an alcohol use disorder (AUD). In other words, the more commonly used terms most people are familiar with — binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism — are all considered alcohol use disorders (AUDs). Alcoholism is the most severe of the AUDs. 

Additionally, a person with the most severe AUD is no longer referred to as an alcoholic. Rather s/he is referred to as a person with an alcohol use disorder. I like this distinction. It allows us to see the person with an AUD as a person, first, and then second, as a person with an AUD.

©2017 Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

10 Responses to Inaccurate | Misleading | Incomplete Information About Drinking Alcohol is Inexcusable

  1. Fred says:

    My habit was started as first a drink after work and soon bloomed into getting hammered every night after work. change came for me when i almost went to jail, that scared me so bad i wanted change. And i did change, I think Alcohol becomes a problem when it is the only thing a person tends to focus on and not as a drink.

  2. Thank you for pointing out the misleading information. There are so many misconceptions about some of the problems attached to abusing alcohol. I appreciate you sharing information to help inform others about the different aspects of alcohol misuse and the side affects for family members.

    • Thanks so much, Cathy. With your vast experience as a parent recovery coach, I know you understand just how much and how detrimental this misleading, incomplete, inaccurate information there is and how devastating it can be to families trying to find help.

  3. It’s extremely important to help stop the spread of misinformation out on the web. I just stumbled upon this blog today and will surely keep reading. Thanks for a great factually accurate view on drinking alcohol, I will share!

  4. At Kansas City Rehabs, we don’t just believe in recovering individuals from addictions, we aim at empowering them, their family and the whole communities through holistic treatments.

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  5. Cindi says:

    I lost my 36 year son to an alcohol drug related death on April 5, 2017. The guilt is overwhelming because I was married and divorced twice, I blame myself for many things. He was in and out of treatment most of his adult life. I am so devastated and full of regrets. I have a daughter who is doing very well in life, another son who is in recovery. My counselor traced my” family tree of addictions”, male alcoholics and addicts on both sides of the family:(…. I am looking for some answers to help, not blame but understanding.

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