Alcohol is sometimes deemed to be less toxic and less harmful than other drugs like cocaine. But according to a UK study, alcohol is more harmful than heroin and crack or cocaine published in a British medical journal. The study examined 20 drugs for the damage they cause to end users and others and the ecstasy level. This paper researches on the harmful effects of alcohol and shows that alcohol is more harmful when compared to these other drugs which are deemed more harmful.


Alcohol is a depressant that affects the Central Nervous System, CNS. In low doses, alcohol acts as a depressant to inhibitory centers and at higher doses, alcohol inhibits excitatory centers. Chronic alcohol use has psychological effects which include; cirrhosis of the liver, hypertension, peptic ulcer, mental retardation, depression, anxiety disorders among others.

The Washington Post had a report on research carried out on the harm scores on various drugs and the report says that alcohol is more dangerous than illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin which were previously thought to be more harmful. Experts from Britain evaluated different substances including alcohol, cocaine, crack, weed, meth and tobacco ranking them based on how they are destructive to the individual and the society as a whole. The researchers further analyzed how addictive the respective drug is and how it harms the body. Other considerations were damage to the environment by the drug, the role played in breaking families, economic costs in form of imprisonment, health care, and social services.

Although methamphetamine, heroin and crack were most lethal on individuals but on considering wider social effects, alcohol was the deadliest. On an overall scale, alcohol outranked other substances (followed by heroin and crack) as the table below shows (clearly from the figure below, alcohol has such the highest total harm effect of 72 as opposed to the next substance heroin at 66 and least on the list is weed which is considered by many to be very harmful);

UK Study: The Most Harmful Drug of All is Alcohol

The study further shows that alcohol impacts more on brain error processing more than the other substances. It confirmed that alcohol negatively affects numerous areas of the brain by affecting the communication with nerve cells or destroying cell receptors. According to the research, certain regions of the brain are impacted by alcohol more than others.

But for many people, drinking alcohol is a pleasant way to relax and they rarely associate it with a harmful side effects but excessive drinking endangers their lives more than any other substance. Alcohol abuse and dependence is a pattern that results in significant and recurrent adverse consequences. Alcohol abusers may in many occasions fail to fulfill major obligations including; school work, family obligations, relationship problems, repeated arrest if found drunk and driving. Heavy drinking causes psychological problems and unfortunately results to more drinking as the only way to avoid discomfort. In America, about 100,000 people die to alcohol related problems yearly. Short-term alcohol effects include; memory loss, hangovers and blackouts while long-term effects range from; cancer, heart related problems, brain damage, stomach ailments, liver cirrhosis and memory loss. Heavy drinking can result in death by automobile accidents, homicide and suicides.

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According to one Jacob Sullum, a study in The Lancet alcohol ranks the first among the ten most dangerous used by humans. Alcohol was assessed to be more lethal than illegal drugs like marijuana, cocaine or ecstasy. This was done according to the physical harm to the user, addictive potential of the drug and the drug's overall toll on the society. It is estimated that alcohol causes more than 50 percent of all visits to the hospital emergency rooms on drug related cases. Some people question why then is it that alcohol is legal while less harmful drugs like ecstasy and LCD are illegal. The lancet was co-authored by Professor David Nutt, a former UK chief drugs adviser. The reason for alcohol topping other drugs was given as because it is the most commonly used drug. The British experts under the Umbrella of Independent Scientific Committee on drugs (ISCD) rated alcohol higher than other drugs due to its damage to health, mortality, mental impairment, economic costs, relationship break-ups, accidental injuries and effect on the community. Figure 2 below shows bit-by-bit breakdown of each of the considered effects and why alcohol received the highest rating of 72 overall harm score.

Using the above figure, professor Nutt argues that some other "illegal" drugs are tightly controlled while alcohol beverages are cheap and readily available. He therefore advices that we should not leave it upon politicians to decide what we consume by the fact that they legalize harmful drugs and make less harmful drugs readily available.  

Case study

Suzanne a 22 year old single woman who lives with his boyfriend in Manhattan has been heavily drinking for the last four years. She and her boyfriend Jack have been drinking and smoking heroine for years now.

When she was 10 years, Suzanne's father who was a heavy drinker left his siblings and her mom never to come back. Four years later at age 14 she started drinking alcohol and later smoking marijuana. At age 16, she dropped out of school partly due to lack of school fees and drug addiction and by 18 years she moved in with her boyfriend Jack who introduced her to heroin. In order for them to avoid paying bills, Suzanne works in the streets at night. Before going out to work, she has to drink four or five beers each night to 'tide her over'.

She confesses that alcohol helps to calm her nerves and get her through the night. Although Jack and her rarely have sex, but each time they do not use a condom but she says that she ensures that at night if she got a client, she has to use a condom. She says that lately, her breasts have swollen and become more tender and has missed her periods for the past 12 weeks. She thus suspects that she is pregnant most probably her boyfriend's. She fears using 'dope' because she is pregnant but again worries that she will stop 'working' and contemplates to abortion although the boyfriend promises to keep the baby.  She is really confused on what to do with her situation which clearly was caused by a drinking father.


From the above researches by the British journal, we can conclude that although a legal substance, alcohol use and abuse has the most harmful effects on the individual and to the society in general. This is attributed to the fact that alcohol is widely used by many people. With an overall harm score of 72, it leads the pack followed by heroin, cocaine and meth in that order. In our case study we have seen how alcohol abuse leads to destruction of lives not only to the user but immediate family members.

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