Alcoholism is a Disease

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited:  September 27 , 
| 4 Sources

Alcoholism is a disease that touches many individuals, families, groups and business. The National council on Alcoholism defines alcoholism disease as an obsession and compulsion for drinking.

While 90% of the population believes that alcoholism should be treated as a disease there are some who disagree with this concept. This article examines both sides of the discussion.

The debate about alcoholism disease spans nearly 200 years of human history. It was 1784 when Dr. Benjamin Rush classified alcoholism as a disease. Come the 1800’s we see the Temperance Movement begin, founded in the idea that alcohol was dangerous and no one should be exposed to its temptations.

At the end of Prohibition, Alcoholics Anonymous began. AA proposed that alcoholics were predisposed to drink biologically, which supported the disease model of alcoholism. Then in the 1960s Elvin Jellinek, MD wrote The Disease Concept of Alcoholism in which inflicted individuals with the disease are described as being unable to abstain, and that they loose all control to alcohol.

From that point forward numerous groups have agreed with the assessment that alcoholism is a disease, and one immune to social, political, or cultural bias. These groups include American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and World Health Organization.

Why Alcoholism is a Disease

Supporters of the disease model of Alcoholism feel that it’s a biological and psychological illness that’s strongly influenced by genetics and brain structure. The disease has various “symptoms” and follows a progression that’s relatively predictable. Some of the identifying symptoms include (but are not limited to):

  • Growing alcohol tolerance.
  • Physical withdrawal symptoms.
  • Drinking in unsafe situations.
  • Inability to cut down or stop drinking.

While the combination of causes and symptoms in each individual may vary, there are enough commonalities to diagnose alcoholism disease. The most difficult issue is that in the early stages of the disease the signs are very subtle and may go unnoticed as “social drinking.” In fact, the disease progresses over such a long period of time that it often takes a crisis for the problem to come to the forefront (such as job loss or drunken driving).


What the Opposition Says

Not everyone agrees that alcoholism is a disease, and even feel that labeling it as one does more harm than good. A 1989 book, Diseasing of America by Stanton Peel, says that alcoholism is about bad behavior and addiction. Another Dr. from the University of Virginia feels alcoholism is a moral disorder. Effectively these people and their supporters feel that alcoholism is a personal choice, not a disease.

One fear is that those treating “alcoholism disease” don’t focus the individual on personal responsibility. If the alcoholic is a “victim”, then there’s less impetus to accept the consequences of their choices and take action to get well.

Another concern with claiming that alcoholism is in fact a disease is the sense that the alcoholic will never get better. In many programs the drinker is told that without on-going support and staying “dry” they’ll fall prey once more to alcoholism disease. That sense of powerlessness may actually contribute to a person’s relapse.


No matter which side of the argument one feels is stronger, there is no question that alcoholism is a severe problem that can have long term negative physical, social, and psychological effects. The earlier a problem is detected, the sooner help can begin.

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 

I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LPC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More

More than alcoholism is a disease on our alcoholism facts page

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