Alcohol has been known to human beings for tens of thousands of years. Alcohol should actually be called ethanol because there are many different types of alcohol known in chemistry. Alcoholic beverages are an integral part of our culture: we drink beer and wine over dinner, at celebrations or after work as means of relaxation from every day routine. This is not the case in every country. In some Arabic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the consumption of alcohol is disapproved of. In Germany there are different age requirements for the vending of alcohol, depending on the alcohol content of the beverage (less than 15 Vol. % 16 years, more than 15 vol. % 18 years).
Alcoholic beverages are produced in different procedures: beer and wine are produced by fermentation. Hard liquor, such as whiskey, is made by distillation (a chemical procedure which abstracts water in order to increase the alcohol content) and liqueurs are made by blending different ingredients (such as fruits or herbs) with pure alcohol (sometimes by repeated distillation). The alcohol content of a beverage is measured in volume (Vol.%). Thus, a large beer (0,5l) contains about 19 grams of ethanol and one shot of hard liquor (0,02l) contains between 5 and 6 grams of ethanol. After consuming one alcoholic beverage the alcohol enters the blood stream fairly quickly. The alcohol concentration in the blood is called blood alcohol level (BLA = Promille in German).
Effects & risks
The effect of alcohol depends on many different factors, just as it is the case with any drug. The quantity and type of drink is an important factor as well as the mood of the consumer and the environment (alone or in a group). Smaller amounts tend to have a stimulating effect while larger amounts tend to have a more depressant or restraining effect. Most young people drink alcohol because it makes them feel less inhibited or self-conscious in regard to others and they want to be in a better mood. Many adolescents (as well as adults) think that it is healthy to consume small amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, e.g. one beer a night. This is only partly true and very much disputed in research because there are also negative effects, even with small amounts. Alcohol is toxic and damaging to the internal organs (especially the liver) and the brain. Thus, there are better ways to be healthy. Alcohol has positive and negative effects, just as any drug does. Most people consider the improved sociability, heightened mood and subdued anxiety as positive effects of alcohol consumption. On the other hand, nausea and the next day’s „hangover“, are some of the negative effects. Unfortunately, in our society it is mostly regarded something positive to have a high alcohol tolerance but actually those people who can drink a lot of alcohol without feeling any negative effects, such as a hangover or nausea, are at a higher risk to become addicted.
Alcohol and traffic
There is a zero tolerance rule during probationary period or for drivers younger than 21 years. Regarding the consequences of alcohol in traffic for all other drivers of motor vehicles it depends on the following:
• How much alcohol has been consumed
• if there has been a black-out, caused by alcohol and if people or things have been put to risk or have been damaged
As with any drug, there are also different ways to deal with alcohol.
A person drinks only occasionally without experiencing negative consequences such as blacking-out, feeling nauseous or getting into trouble with the police. Some people drink alcohol on a regular basis but only small amounts, such as a glass of wine a day. Also the consumption at social events must be put into this category, as long as there are no negative consequences. In medicine, alcohol is an ingredient of some medical drugs (medical use).
The consumption of alcohol in certain situations, such as in traffic (zero tolerance rule during probationary period or for drivers younger than 21 years), at work or in sports (risk of injury) is regarded as misuse. Also part of this category is the mixing of alcohol with medical drugs. Some beliefs about the consumption of alcohol are superstition, such as the belief that alcohol warms the body.
If someone needs to drink more and more in order to reach a certain effect, if he/she feels bad when he/she doesn’t drink, has a strong urge to drink, is being asked by others to drink less and experiences difficulties in reducing their drinking he/she is probably addicted to alcohol. You can also call it problematic use when someone uses alcohol to deal with problems (such as fear, sadness, anger) and cannot deal with it otherwise. Finally, also any kind of binge drinking must be put into this category.
Numbers about alcohol consumption*
About every 4th adolescent in the age range from 12 to 17 has never consumed alcohol before. Three quarters of the 12 to 17 year-olds have consumed alcohol at least once.
Most 12 to 17-year-olds don’t consume alcohol on a regular basis. Just about 23% of boys and 13% of girls drink alcohol at least once a week and thus are regular drinkers.
The majority of 12 to 17-year-olds and 18 to 20 year-olds have low-risk consumption patterns*.
BUT: Among 12 to 17-year-olds about 7% of boys and 6% of girls report on a risky alcohol consumption habit. Among 18 to 20-year-olds 10% of men and 6% of women report on a risky alcohol consumption habit.
* low-risk consumption (men 0–24g, women 0–12g), risky consumption (men > 24–60g, women > 12–40g).