Disease Theory of Alcoholism

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Alcoholism or alcohol addiction is a disease characterized by the compulsive drinking of alcoholic beverages. Alcoholism can also refer to the behavior of drinking to the point of negative consequences. The existence of the disease alcoholism is widely accepted by the medical and scientific communities,[1] although critics exist.


The modern disease theory of alcoholism meaning it is not at all a disease states that problem drinking is sometimes caused by a disease of the brain, characterized by altered brain structure and function.[2] Within the theory, this disease is called "alcoholism" or "alcohol addiction" although in common usage these words often have other meanings.

Alcoholism is a chronic, life-long disease, such as diabetes. However, if managed properly, damage to the brain can be stopped and to some extent reversed.[3] In addition to problem drinking, the disease is characterized by symptoms including an impaired control over alcohol, compulsive thoughts about alcohol, and distorted thinking.[4] Alcoholism can also lead indirectly, through excess consumption, to physical dependence on alcohol, and diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver.

The risk of developing alcoholism depends on many factors, including genetics and the environment. Those with a family history of alcoholism are more likely to develop it themselves;[citation needed] however, many individuals have developed alcoholism without a family history of the disease.[citation needed] Since the consumption of alcohol is necessary to develop alcoholism, the availability of and attitudes towards alcohol in an individual's environment affect their likelihood of developing the disease. Current evidence indicates that in both men and women, alcoholism is 50-60% genetically determined, leaving 40-50% for environmental influences.[5]

In a review in 2001, McLellan et al. compared the diagnoses, heritability, etiology (genetic and environmental factors), pathophysiology, and response to treatments (adherence and relapse) of drug dependence vs type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and asthma. They found that genetic heritability, personal choice, and environmental factors are comparably involved in the etiology and course of all of these disorders, providing evidence that drug (including alcohol) dependence is a chronic medical illness.[6]

Genetics and Environment

Genes play a large role in the development of alcoholism. Twin and adoption studies have shown that a person's genes can predispose them to developing alcoholism. However, genetic predisposition is not necessary to develop alcoholism. Similarly, not everyone with a genetic predisposition develops the disease. Current evidence indicates that in both men and women, alcoholism is 50-60% genetically determined, leaving 40-50% for environmental and other influences.[7]


The diagnosis of alcoholism is often made using the DSM-IV criteria for alcohol dependence,[8] which requires three or more of the following symptoms to occur within the same 12-month period:

  1. tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
    • a need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect
    • markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of substance
  2. withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
    • the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance
    • the same (or a closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms
  3. the substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended
  4. there is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use
  5. a great deal of time is spent in activities to obtain the substance, use the substance, or recover from its effects
  6. important social, occupational or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of substance use
  7. the substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance (e.g., continued drinking despite recognition that an ulcer was made worse by alcohol consumption)


Alcoholism is a chronic, life-long disease. In most cases, the patient is never able to regain the ability to drink in moderation.[9] However, by ceasing the consumption of alcohol, the patient can limit and prevent further complications.

Chronic complications

Most complications from alcoholism are due to the excessive consumption of alcohol rather than the disease itself. These complications can include:



The Scottish physician Thomas Trotter (1760-1832), was the first to characterize excessive drinking as a disease, or medical condition.[10]

The American physician Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence -- who understood drunkenness to be what we would now call a "loss of control" -- was, perhaps, the first to use the term "addiction" in this sort of meaning.[11]

My observations authorize me to say, that persons who have been addicted to them, should abstain from them suddenly and entirely. 'Taste not, handle not, touch not' should be inscribed upon every vessel that contains spirits in the house of a man, who wishes to be cured of habits of intemperance.[11]

Rush argued that "habitual drunkenness should be regarded not as a bad habit but as a disease", describing it as "a palsy of the will".[12] His views are described by Valverde[13] and by Levine[11]:

Rush’s contribution to a new model of habitual drunkenness was fourfold: First, he identified the causal agent—spiritous liquors; second, he clearly described the drunkard’s condition as a loss of control over drinking behavior—as compulsive activity; third, he declared the condition to be a disease; and fourth, he prescribed total abstinence as the only way to cure the drunkard.

The modern theory of alcoholism as a disease was first put forward by E. Morton Jellinek in his famous[14] book "The Disease Concept of Alcoholism".[15] The American Medical Association had declared that alcoholism was an illness in 1956.[16]

In 1980, the American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs (now the Council on Science and Public Health) noted that "alcoholism is in and of itself a disabling and handicapping condition". Between 1980 and 1991, medical organizations, including the AMA, worked together to establish policies regarding their positions on the disease theory. These policies were developed in 1987 in part due to the fact that third-party reimbursement for treatment was difficult or impossible unless alcoholism were categorized as a disease. The policies of the AMA, formed through consensus of the federation of state and specialty medical societies within their House of Delegates, state, in part:

"The AMA endorses the proposition that drug dependencies, including alcoholism, are diseases and that their treatment is a legitimate part of medical practice."

In 1991, The AMA further endorsed the dual classification of alcoholism by the International Classification of Diseases under both psychiatric and medical sections.

Controlled drinking

The disease theory is often interpreted as implying that problem drinkers are incapable of returning to controlled drinking, and therefore that treatment should focus on total abstinence. Some critics have used evidence of problem drinkers' returning to controlled drinking to dispute the disease theory.

The first major empirical challenge to this interpretation of the disease theory followed a 1962 study by Dr. D. L. Davies.[17] Davies' follow-up of 93 problem drinkers found that 7 of them were able to return to "controlled drinking" (less than 7 drinks per day for at least 7 years). Davies concluded that "the accepted view that no alcohol addict can ever again drink normally should be modified, although all patients should be advised to aim at total abstinence"; however others interpreted his findings as evidence against the disease model.[citation needed] After the Davies study, several other researchers reported cases of problem drinkers returning to controlled drinking.[18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25][26] In 1976, a major study commonly referred to as the RAND report, published evidence of problem drinkers learning to consume alcohol in moderation.[27] The publication of the study renewed controversy over how people suffering a disease which reputedly leads to uncontrollable drinking could manage to drink controllably. Subsequent studies also reported evidence of return to controlled drinking.[28] Similarly, according to a 2002 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) study, about one of every six (17.7%) of alcohol dependent adults in the U.S. whose dependence began over one year previously had become "low-risk drinkers" (less than 14 drinks per week and 5 drinks per day for men, or less than 7 per week and 4 per day for women).[29]

However, many researchers have debated the results of the above studies. A 1994 followup of the original 7 cases studied by Davies suggested that he "had been substantially mislead, and the paradox exists that a widely influential paper which did much to stimulate new thinking was based on faulty data."[30] The most recent study, a long-term (60 year) follow-up of two groups of alcoholic men by George Vaillant at Harvard Medical School concluded that "return to controlled drinking rarely persisted for much more than a decade without relapse or evolution into abstinence."[9] Vaillant also noted that "return-to-controlled drinking, as reported in short-term studies, is often a mirage."


Legal considerations

In 1988, the US Supreme Court upheld a regulation whereby the Veterans' Administration was able to avoid paying benefits by presuming that primary alcoholism is always the result of the veteran's "own willful misconduct." The majority opinion written by Justice Byron R. White echoed the District of Columbia Circuit's finding that there exists "a substantial body of medical literature that even contests the proposition that alcoholism is a disease, much less that it is a disease for which the victim bears no responsibility".[31] He also wrote: "Indeed, even among many who consider alcoholism a "disease" to which its victims are genetically predisposed, the consumption of alcohol is not regarded as wholly involuntary." However, the majority opinion stated in conclusion that "this litigation does not require the Court to decide whether alcoholism is a disease whose course its victims cannot control. It is not our role to resolve this medical issue on which the authorities remain sharply divided." The dissenting opinion noted that "despite much comment in the popular press, these cases are not concerned with whether alcoholism, simplistically, is or is not a "disease.""[32]

The American Bar Association "affirms the principle that dependence on alcohol or other drugs is a disease."[33]

Current acceptance

The current mainstream scientific and medical view is that alcoholism is a disease, although some debate on this topic still occurs.[34][35]

In 2004, the World Health Organisation published a detailed report on alcohol and other psychoactive substances entitled "Neuroscience of psychoactive substance use and dependence".[36] It stated that this was the "first attempt by WHO to provide a comprehensive overview of the biological factors related to substance use and dependence by summarizing the vast amount of knowledge gained in the last 20-30 years. The report highlights the current state of knowledge of the mechanisms of action of different types of psychoactive substances, and explains how the use of these substances can lead to the development of dependence syndrome." The report states that "dependence has not previously been recognized as a disorder of the brain, in the same way that psychiatric and mental illnesses were not previously viewed as being a result of a disorder of the brain. However, with recent advances in neuroscience, it is clear that dependence is as much a disorder of the brain as any other neurological or psychiatric illness."

The American Society of Addiction Medicine and the American Medical Association both maintain extensive policy regarding alcoholism. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes the existence of "alcoholism" as the equivalent of alcohol dependence. The American Hospital Association, the American Public Health Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American concerned with College of Physicians classify "alcoholism" as a disease.

In the US, the National Institutes of Health has a specific institute, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), concerned with the support and conduct of biomedical and behavioral research on the causes, consequences, treatment, and prevention of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems. It funds approximately 90 percent of all such research in the United States. The official NIAAA position is that "alcoholism is a disease. The craving that an alcoholic feels for alcohol can be as strong as the need for food or water. An alcoholic will continue to drink despite serious family, health, or legal problems. Like many other diseases, alcoholism is chronic, meaning that it lasts a person's lifetime; it usually follows a predictable course; and it has symptoms. The risk for developing alcoholism is influenced both by a person's genes and by his or her lifestyle."[37]


Critics such as philosopher Herbert Fingarette[citation needed], the sociologist Robin Room[citation needed], psychotherapist Dr. Stanton Peele[citation needed], and psychologist Nicholas Heather[citation needed] reject the disease model of alcoholism along with the disease model of addiction in general. The psychologists Jeffrey A. Schaler and Thomas Szasz also reject the classification of all mental illnesses, including alcoholism and addiction, as diseases.[38]


Many doctors "loath to prescribe drugs to treat alcoholism, sometimes because of the belief that alcoholism is a moral disorder rather than a disease", according to Dr. Bankole Johnson, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia.[39] Dr Johnson's own pioneering work has made important contributions to the understanding of alcoholism as a disease.[40]

Certain medications including opioid antagonists such as naltrexone have been shown to be effective in the treatment of alcoholism, although research has not yet demonstrated long-term efficacy.[41]

Frequency and quantity of alcohol use are not related to the presence of the condition that is, people can drink a great deal without necessarily being alcoholic and alcoholics may drink minimally or infrequently.[42]

A greater belief in the disease theory of alcoholism and higher commitment to total abstinence were found to be factors correlated with increased likelihood that an alcoholic would have a full-blown relapse (substantial continued use) following an initial lapse (single use).[43] However, the authors noted that "the direction of causality cannot be determined from these data. It is possible that belief in alcoholism as a loss-of-control disease predisposes clients to relapse, or that repeated relapses reinforce clients' beliefs in the disease model."

See also


  1. ^ Alcohol - Frequently Asked Questions, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  2. ^ Leshner, Alan I., Addiction is a Brain Disease, and It Matters, Focus 1:190-193 (2003)
  3. ^ Bartsch, Andreas J.;Homola, Gyorgy; Biller, Armin; Smith, Stephen M.; Weijers, Heinz-Gerd; Wiesbeck, Gerhard A.; Jenkinson, Mark; De Stefano, Nicola; Solymosi, Laszlo; and Bendszus, Martin, Manifestations of early brain recovery associated with abstinence from alcoholism, Brain 130(1) (2007) pp36-47.
  4. ^ The definition of alcoholism, The Joint Committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine to Study the Definition and Criteria for the Diagnosis of Alcoholism, The Journal of the American Medical Association, 268(8), August 26, 1992
  5. ^ Dick DM and Bierut LJ, The Genetics of Alcohol Dependency, Current Psychiatric Reports 8 (2006) 151-7.
  6. ^ McLellan AT, Lewis DC, O'Brien CP, Kleber HD. Drug dependence, a chronic medical illness: implications for treatment, insurance, and outcomes evaluation. JAMA. 2000 284(13):1689-95. PMID: 11015800
  7. ^ Dick DM and Bierut LJ, The Genetics of Alcohol Dependency, Current Psychiatric Reports 8 (2006) 151-7.
  8. ^ DSM-IV, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, ed. 4. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association (AMA). 1994.
  9. ^ a b Vaillant GE (August 2003). "A 60-year follow-up of alcoholic men". Addiction 98 (8): 1043–51. PMID 12873238. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/resolve/openurl?genre=article&sid=nlm:pubmed&issn=0965-2140&date=2003&volume=98&issue=8&spage=1043. 
  10. ^ Trotter, T. (Porter, R., ed.), An Essay, Medical, Philosophical, and Chemical, on Drunkenness and Its Effects on the Human Body, Routledge, (London), 1988. (This a facsimile of the first (1804) London edition. The book itself was based on the thesis "De ebrietate, ejusque effectibus in corpus humanum" that Trotter had presented to Edinburgh University in 1788.)
  11. ^ a b c Levine, H.G., "The Discovery of Addiction: Changing Conceptions of Habitual Drunkenness in America", Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Vol.39, No.1, (January 1978), pp.143-174. (Reprint: Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Vol.2, No.1, (1985), pp.43-57.) Available at [1]
  12. ^ Valverde (1998, p.2). Rush expounded his views in a book published in 1808.<re>Rush, B., An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind: With an Account of the Means of Preventing, and of the Remedies for Curing Them, Thomas Dobson, (Philadelphia), 1808.
  13. ^ Valverde, M., Diseases of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge), 1998.
  14. ^ Mann K, Hermann D, Heinz A. One hundred years of alcoholism: the Twentieth Century. Alcohol Alcohol. 2000 35, 10-5. PMID: 10684770
  15. ^ Jellinek, E. M., The Disease Concept of Alcoholism, Hillhouse, (New Haven), 1960.
  16. ^ AMA (AMA History) 1941 to 1960
  17. ^ Davies, D.L. (1962). Normal drinking in recovered alcohol addicts. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol 23, 94 - 104.
  18. ^ Caddy, G. R., & Lovibond, S. H. (1976). Self-regulation and discriminated aversive conditioning in the modification of alcoholics' drinking behavior. Behavior Therapy, 7, 223-230
  19. ^ Goodwin, D. W., Crane, J. B., & Guze, S. B. (1971). Felons who drink: An 8-year follow-up. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 32, 136-147
  20. ^ Miller, W. R., & Caddy, G. R. (1977). Abstinence and controlled drinking in the treatment of problem drinkers. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 38, 986-1003
  21. ^ Pattison, E. M., Sobell, M. B., & Sobell, L. C. (1977). Emerging concepts of alcohol dependence. New York: Springer; Schaefer, H. H. (1971). A cultural delusion of alcoholics. Psychological Reports, 29, 587-589
  22. ^ Schuckit, M. A., & Winokur, G. A. (1972). A short-term followup of women alcoholics. Diseases of the Nervous System, 33, 672-678
  23. ^ Sobell, M. B., & Sobell, L. C. (1973). Alcoholics treated by individualized behavior therapy: One year treatment outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 11, 599-618
  24. ^ Sobell, M. B., & Sobell, L. C. (1976). Second year treatment outcome of alcoholics treated by individualized behavior therapy: Results. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 14, 195-215
  25. ^ Steiner, C. (1971). Games alcoholics play. New York: Grove
  26. ^ Vogler, R. E., Compton, J. V., & Weissbach, J. A. (1975). Integrated behavior change techniques for alcoholism. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 43, 233-243
  27. ^ Armor, D. J., Polich, J. M., & Stambul, H. B. (1976). Alcoholism and treatment. Rand Corporation
  28. ^ Polich, J. M., Armor, D. J., & Braiker, H. B. (1981). The course of alcoholism: Four years after treatment. New York: Wiley; Heather, N., & Robertson, I. (1981). Controlled drinking. London: Methuen; Robertson, I. H., & Heather, N. (1982). A survey of controlled drinking treatment in Britain. British Journal on Alcohol and Alcoholism, 17, 102- 105; J.H. Mendelson and N.K. Mello (Eds.), The Diagnosis and Treatment of Alcoholism (Second Edition), McGraw-Hill, New York, 1985; G. Nordström and M. Berglund, A prospective study of successful long-term adjustment in alcohol dependence: Social drinking versus abstinence, Journal of Studies on Alcohol 48 (1987): 95-103.
  29. ^ NIH/National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2001-2002 Survey Finds That Many Recover From Alcoholism: Researchers Identify Factors Associated with Abstinent and Non-Abstinent Recovery. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism press release, January 19, 2005; Dawson DA, Grant BF, Stinson FS, Chou PS, Huang B, Ruan WJ. Recovery from DSM-IV alcohol dependence: United States, 2001-2002. Addiction, 2005 (March), 100(3), 281-92.
  30. ^ Edwards G. "D.L. Davies and 'Normal drinking in recovered alcohol addicts': the genesis of a paper." Drug Alcohol Depend. 1994 35(3):249-59. PMID: 7956756
  31. ^ TRAYNOR v. TURNAGE, 485 U.S. 535 (1988)
  32. ^ Alcoholics lose some VA benefits - Veterans Administration | Science News | Find Articles at BNET
  33. ^ http://www.abanet.org/subabuse/07report_with_recommendation.pdf
  34. ^ http://www.bhrm.org/papers/Counselor3.pdf
  35. ^ Ruth Engs (ed.): Chpt.6 Controversies book-disease concept of alcoholism should be rejected
  36. ^ Pagetit
  37. ^ FAQs for the General Public
  38. ^ Vaillant, George Eman (March 1990). "We should retain the disease concept of alcoholism". Harvard Medical School Mentul Health Letter 6: 4-6. 
  39. ^ [Hathaway, William. Headache pill eases alcohol cravings. Hartford Courant, October 10, 2007]
  40. ^ Hazelden - Bankole Johnson, Ph.D., 2001 winner
  41. ^ Opioid Antagonists for Alcohol Dependence, Srisurapanont M and Jarusuraisin N, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (Online) 2005 Jan 25;(1):CD001867
  42. ^ Morse, R. M.; Flavin, D. K. (August 1992). "The definition of alcoholism. The Joint Committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine to Study the Definition and Criteria for the Diagnosis of Alcoholism". Journal of the American Medical Association 268 (8): 1012–1014. doi:10.1001/jama.268.8.1012. ISSN 0098-7484. http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/268/8/1012. 
  43. ^ Miller, William R; Westerberg, Verner S; Harris, Richard J; Tonigan, J Scott (1996). "What predicts relapse? Prospective testing of antecedent models.". Addiction 91 (Supplement): S151–S171. PMID 8997790. 

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