Approximately 88,000 Americans die every year as a result of alcohol-related conditions, far outnumbering other drugs such as heroin, cocaine and prescription drug overdoses. These figures are sometimes brushed off as inconclusive, as other drugs are perceived as more dangerous. Why is alcohol misuse still not taken seriously enough?

Moderation Versus Excess

It’s difficult to look at figures when comparing the inherent danger of particular drugs, as they do not reveal the entire picture. More people die of alcohol-related diseases than other drugs, but the question of moderation is relevant. Many people enjoy occasional drinking and find it leads to nothing worse than a headache the next morning. Stories of “moderate” heroin or cocaine users are not common.

That’s because the intrinsic addictiveness of different drugs varies. Illicit drugs are often associated with fast-spiraling cases of addiction that are hard to beat. Yet, the startling levels of alcohol-related disease cannot be ignored, and suggest that heavy alcohol use is often not taken seriously enough.

The Worst Addiction?

Alcohol is often cited as being the only drug where seriously addicted individuals can actually die from withdrawal. Like many drugs, excessive abuse leads to a homeostasis in the body. More is needed to sustain the same feelings, leading to heavier use over time. Sudden withdrawal of heroin can also be severe and often needs coupling with gradual doses of drugs such as methadone to wean individuals off it. With alcohol, it’s possible for sufferers to die from kidney, liver or heart failure as a result of sudden withdrawal. It’s far from a trivial addiction.

“Less Dangerous Than Driving”

A recent statement by the British government cites moderate drinking to be no more dangerous than everyday activities such as driving. Yet, this statement is not backed up by figures, as just over 8,400 people died in the UK because of alcohol in 2013, compared to just over 1,700 in road traffic accidents. The reasoning appears to be that drinking a couple of beers at home is far less likely to kill you than driving. On the road, you may be exposed to risks such as other drivers and extreme weather conditions.

Many have criticized the statement as only fueling the UK’s considerable alcohol problem. The death figures do not tell the whole story, as alcohol also leads to serious levels of crime and non-fatal injury, pushing up expenditure on police and healthcare. “Danger” is difficult to gauge because it depends on many factors, such as how much you’re drinking. That said, suggesting that you shouldn’t worry too much about alcohol because it’s less risky than driving or taking large amounts of other drugs is sending out a dangerous message.

It’s important to remember that any drug can be problematic if taken in excess. Many people enjoy a sensible amount of alcohol, which may still do some harm over time but is less likely to lead to serious addiction if levels truly are moderate. Unfortunately, the high number of deaths related to alcohol per year reveal a common picture of misuse across America. It’s important not to trivialize heavy alcohol use and to keep in mind that like any drug, it can quickly become problematic if abused.