Healthy Living – Alcohol And Habit-Forming Drugs

The Effect of Drugs upon the Body.—Any ordinary food taken into the body has a chemical effect upon the blood and other tissues. It may influence the activity of the body itself, causing the action of some organ to start or stop in response to the effect of the food. We have seen that even the odor of food may cause the flow of saliva.

Such effects of food are merely a part of the ordinary healthy working of the body. There are other chemical substances, not found in ordinary foods, which have special and more powerful effects on certain organs. Such substances are called drugs. There are, for instance, certain drugs which can be given to people who do not sleep well, to quiet their nerves. There are drugs which can be used to give people an appetite when they are not normally hungry. There are drugs which can be used to stimulate a heart that is weak and not doing its work well. All such medicines are likely to be exceedingly dangerous, and they should never be used except under the direction of a physician.

In particular, the various kinds of patent medicines of secret composition should be avoided. Some of them are drugs that are useful when prescribed by a physician; but many of them contain powerful poisons, and it is foolish to put into the body, which is properly understood by no one but a physician, a drug of unknown nature that may do deadly damage to some of the delicate tissues.

Habit-forming Drugs.—One of the special dangers about certain of these drugs is that they are habit-forming. This means that the person who uses them grows, step by step, to depend on them and constantly wants more and more. The body is gradually poisoned by the drug; yet the unhappy victim craves it and sometimes cannot give up the habit, and with health and character broken finally dies as a result. The harm done by such substances as opium, morphine, and cocaine is so serious that their sale is now strictly controlled by law. People are not allowed to get these drugs except on a physician’s prescription, and careful records of all their sales must be kept by the druggists. Unfortunately, however, the law does not cover certain patent medicines which contain small proportions of habit-forming drugs.

Alcohol.—There is one drug which is not subject to any of these regulations, perhaps partly because it is only within recent years that its harmfulness has been fully appreciated. This is alcohol, the active substance of whiskey, beer, wine, and other similar drinks.

It has, of course, always been known that people who use alcohol to great excess are physically and mentally and morally injured, and it has also been known that with many people the craving for more and more alcohol grows, some-what as it does with the users of habit-forming drugs. The fact that has been realized only recently is the harm that may result from its use even in comparatively moderate doses.

How Alcoholic Drinks are Made.—The weaker alcoholic drinks, such as beer, are made by letting a microscopic plant, the yeast microbe, act on sugary substances. If you add a little of the yeast cake used for bread making to a solution of sugar and water, and keep it in a warm place, the microbes in the yeast cake will change the sugar to carbon dioxide, which you can see rising as bubbles, and to alcohol, which will be in the liquid though you cannot see it. Such a process is called fermentation. In bread making, we use the yeast to make bubbles of car-bon dioxide, which lighten the bread. In brewing beer and other liquors, it is used primarily to make alcohol; ales and certain wines are pre-pared in a similar way.

The stronger alcoholic liquors—such as whiskey, brandy, rum, gin, and some of the wines—are made from weaker fermented liquors by a process of distillation. The alcohol, which boils at a lower temperature than water, is driven off by heat into pipes, where it is cooled and collected again.

Alcohol as a Food.—There has been a great deal of discussion as to whether alcohol is a food or a poison. It is both—a very poor food and a powerful poison. Anything that combines with oxygen so as to yield energy in the body may be technically called a food, and in this sense alcohol is a food. On the other hand, it contains no nitrogen and so cannot serve as a tissue builder, as proteins do; and its energy value is very low. Even the weaker alcoholic drinks, such as beer, which contain other food substances, would be exceedingly costly sources of food energy, nearly twice as expensive as sirloin steak.

Even if alcohol were a good food and a cheap food, any value of this kind which it might have would be far more than balanced by its special poisonous effects, and it is by these effects that alcohol must be judged.

The Effect of Alcohol on the Digestive System.—Alcohol produces serious effects upon many organs of the body, particularly the brain and the nerves. These effects will be de-scribed in later chapters, but something should be said here of the harm done to the digestion and to the general health of the body as a whole.

Strong alcoholic drinks, like whiskey, contain so much poison that even in the throat they smart and sting. The delicate walls of the stomach may be irritated by such strong drinks so that chronic indigestion results.

More important than these external effects of alcohol are the internal ones. The liver suffers particularly, its tissues gradually becoming hard and dead under the action of the poison.

The use of alcoholic drinks before or with meals increases the appetite unnaturally and thus leads to overeating, which, in combination with the alcohol itself, puts a double strain upon the body and contributes in a high degree to many serious diseases.

General Effects of Alcohol on Health.—Every one knows that large doses of whiskey or beer poison the man who is so foolish as to take them. He loses control, first of his judgment, then of his muscles, and finally of his senses. What many people do not understand is that small amounts of these liquors taken over a long period of time may produce just as serious, though less obvious, results. Many of the organs of the body are slowly poisoned by such use of liquor, though no one but the doctor realizes the damage that is being done.

Dr. C. R. Stockard, an investigator in New York, has allowed animals to inhale the fumes of alcohol and has studied the effect upon their offspring. He finds that for several generations the descendants from such poisoned animals are defective and diseased—a fact of the greatest importance in estimating the influence of alcohol as a race poison, and one which could have been discovered only by painstaking experiments of this kind.

Insurance Companies and Their Studies of the Death Rate.—It is very important for life insurance companies to know how people’s habits affect their health and chances of living a long time. The person who is insured pays a certain premium to the company each year while he lives, and when he dies the company pays the family the amount of insurance. The rates of premiums to be paid every year are fixed by the general experience of the past, which shows how long people will live on the average. Now if a particular group of people are likely to be short-lived, the insurance companies cannot afford to insure them without charging a higher premium than usual.

In order to find out whether the use of alcoholic drinks shortens people’s lives and makes them bad subjects for insurance, many companies, both in the United States and in Europe, have studied very carefully the length of life of people who use alcohol as compared with those who do not; and the results of these studies are most significant.

English and Scottish Statistics.—The statistics collected by the United Kingdom Temperance and General Provident Institution of London showed that the death rate among those who used alcoholic liquors was 38 per cent higher than among abstainers. The Sceptre Life Association of London found the death rate among non-abstainers 52 per cent higher than among abstainers, and the Scottish Temperance Life Assurance Company of Glasgow found it 43 per cent higher.

American Statistics.—An even more important study has recently been made in the United States by forty-three American life insurance companies, who studied their statistics from a great many points of view. The most important conclusions which they reached were that the death rate of those who use alcohol steadily and freely is 86 per cent above the normal, while the rate among steady

moderate drinkers (persons taking the equivalent of two glasses of beer or one glass of whiskey a day) is 18 per cent above the normal. (Note the relative length of the three bands in Fig. 38 above.)

Mr. Arthur Hunter of the New York Life Insurance Company says of these figures: “The relatively low mortality among abstainers is not due solely, in my judgment, to abstinence from alcohol. Other factors, such as abstinence from tobacco, are involved. It requires self-control to be an abstainer, and the strength of mind which has made abstinence a habit may affect other habits, such as eating, in which there should be both moderation and discrimination. The low mortality among abstainers may be said to be due to temperance in all things and total abstinence from alcohol.”

Summarizing his recent studies of the whole field of American insurance statistics, Mr. Hunter says: “The opinions of the medical directors show that the life insurance companies look with disfavor on applications from persons who drink freely, although not to the point of intoxication, and on those who have taken alcoholic beverages to excess in the past but are temperate now. The statistics prove conclusively that this attitude of mind is based on facts, and that a higher mortality must be expected in these types of users of alcoholic beverages. On the other hand, it is conclusively proved that total abstainers are longer-lived than non-abstainers, even excluding from the latter those who drank immoderately at the date of application for insurance or prior to that time. The experience of the seven American life insurance companies has proved that abstainers have from 10 per cent to 30 per cent lower mortality than non-abstainers; and there is no good reason for believing that if the other companies compiled their statistics, there would be any different result, provided the companies exercised the same care in accepting abstainers and non-abstainers. The American statistics, now published, corroborate the British data in indicating the unfavorable effect of alcohol on longevity, and in showing that total abstinence decidedly increases longevity.”

Alcohol as a Public Health Problem.—In view of these facts, it is clear that any one who is interested in making human life longer and happier must be seriously concerned about the problem of alcohol. Many of the progressive Boards of Health are now making definite efforts to educate the public as to the dangers of alcoholic drinks, warning people against alcohol as they do against the germ of tuberculosis or any other enemy of the race. A bulletin of the Department of Health of New York City says, “The discontinuance of the use of alcohol will mark a greater advance in public health protection than anything since the application of our knowledge of the bacterial origin of disease.” The New York State Department of Health on one of its educational charts has the sentence, “Alcohol causes more misery, sickness, inefficiency, and death than any other single cause,”—a strong statement, but one which we must heed when it comes from an official and scientific body whose sole interest is the preservation of the public health.

Dr. Henry Smith Williams’ summary of the harm done by alcohol, in his book on Alcohol, How It Affects the Individual, the Community, and the Race, has often been quoted and may well be quoted once more. “I am bound to believe, on the evidence,” he says, “that if you take alcohol habitually in any quantity whatever, it is to some extent a menace to you. I am bound to believe, in the light of what science has revealed:

” (1) that you are threatening the physical structure of your stomach, your liver, your kidneys, your heart, your blood vessels, your nerves, your brain;

” (2) that you are unquestionably lessening your power to work in any field, be it physical, intellectual, or artistic;

” (3) that you are in some measure lowering the grade of your mind, dulling your higher sense, and taking the edge off your morals;

” (4) that you are distinctly lessening your chances of maintaining your health and of living to old age.”


1. Explain the difference between foods and drugs. 2. What drug has caused much trouble in China?


3. What is meant by a habit-forming drug?

4. Why are patent medicines dangerous?

5. In history and in stories, we read of the vast amount of drinking which was formerly considered a proof of manhood. Why do we to-day consider alcoholic liquor a dangerous thing, and teach people to avoid it?

6. Compare the part played by yeast in brewing and in baking.

7. Is alcohol a food or a poison? Explain.

8. What organ of the digestive apparatus is especially affected by alcohol?

9. What difference does it make to insurance companies whether a man drinks or not?

10. What conclusions have been drawn from a study of the death rates of abstainers and non-abstainers?

11. If the last four statements of the chapter are true, is the pleasure that may be had from drinking worth the price?

12. Statistics show that more crimes are due to alcohol than to any other cause. Explain.