To the question of whether alcohol is a food or a drug, it must be answered that it is both. We discussed its fuel value and action as a food yesterday.
As a drug it, like most drugs, must be classified in a different way at different times of its action, and with different amounts taken. Most drugs taken first, depress and narcotize second, and become poisonous last. So it is with alcohol.
The stage between stimulation and depression, however, is very short. The stage between the time when it is a depressant and when it is poisonous is, however, likely to be considerable, because the body destroys it so rapidly. With persistent drinking, however, the concentration of alcohol in the blood may reach such a point that danger of death is very imminent. It is a statement of a health commissioner in one of the larger cities, that during prohibition, although there was much talk of death from poisonous ingredients in bootleg liquor, all the deaths of this kind which were carefully examined were due to alcohol itself, and not to poisonous ingredients.
A scale of toxic symptoms of acute alcohol is given in Dr. Haven Emerson’s book, printed for the use of education in schools:
How FREQUENT LIBATIONS DEVELOP CHANGES IN BODY
“If a person has recovered fully from acute poisoning by alcohol” writes Dr. Haven Emerson, “no trace of the effect upon any of the organs or tissues of the body remains. If drinking of alcohol is continued to the extent of frequent subacute, or what would ordinarily be called non-intoxicating, effects of the drug, the person slowly develops chronic changes, not only in tissues of the nervous system, with alteration of the personality, intelligence and emotions, but in the digestive canal, in the liver in a considerable proportion of the cases, and to a less marked degree in most of the other soft tissues of the body. These changes become permanent and may persist for years, even after the use of alcohol has been permanently discontinued.”
In spite of much propagandist literature to the contrary, every one of these statements is true. The worst effect of alcohol is not its immediate effect, whether that be unduly stimulating or poisonous, but the tendency which it shares with other narcotic drugs to cause addiction, a chemical state of the body in which the tissues demand a continuous supply of the substance.
The social results of these facts are many. Of patients admitted to mental hospitals for the first time for alcoholic mental disease, in only about 13 per cent can the drink habit be attributed to an antecedent abnormal mental state. About 10 per cent of all first admissions to mental disease hospitals in the United States were for alcoholic mental disease.
The death rate from alcoholism has been debated and disputed, but it is probable that somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 per 100,000 deaths in the United States are due to alcoholism. When alcohol consumption falls there is a reduction in mortality from various conditions affected by the alcohol habit, such as pneumonia, diseases of the digestive system, suicide and accidents.
There really seems to be very little to be said in favor of the use of alcohol, but human nature being what it is, not particularly logical, its use will probably continue. According to the book I have been quoting, which is published for use in schools, in the chapter entitled “Conditions for a Permissible Use of Alcoholic Beverages,” it is said “Alcohol can be so moderately used as to cause little or no direct harm to the body and mind of the user, and without damage to others or to the user’s progeny.”
Such an ideal state, however, is a difficult one to attain, although if it is, the user and the community are probably better off for the artificially produced qualities of contentment and comfort which result to the user.
Finally, it should be said that alcohol is not essential to the health of any normal person, whatever his age, or to the normal functioning of his life’s processes.