Are There Different Levels of Alcohol Addiction?

Two friends drinking beer at home.

If you’ve ever had to contend with addiction in your own life or in the life of someone you care about, odds are you’ve heard some rather intense stories and concepts surrounding this subject. The entire arena of addiction has about as many theories and concepts connected to it as there are people who struggle with addiction. Addiction is a grim and widespread problem that few are able to cover fully.

One concept that gets tossed around is the idea that there are different “levels” of drinking and that some types of drinking are “okay,” while others are not. You see this in common phrases such as “problem drinking,” “drinking to get drunk,” “trouble drinking,” “daily drinking,” “at-risk drinking,” “binge drinking,” “excessive drinking,” etc.

But the truth is that any kind of drinking that poses any kind of risk to the drinker or to those around him or her is risky enough. There is no biological need to drink alcohol, so the risk associated with its use cannot be easily justified, and while everyone who drinks may not fit the criteria for being an addict, the question is—how long will it take until they do?

What Defines Addiction

Drunk woman laying on the bed.

What defines addiction? What does it mean to have an addiction? The clearest, most concise way to define addiction is that one has an addiction to drugs or alcohol (or a combination of the two) when their use of the substance interferes with other areas of their life. Addiction is a repeated involvement with something that has negative ramifications on their life.

An addiction generally has five key parts to it:

  • An addiction will involve both substances and activities related to those substances (alcohol and drinking, drugs and drug use).
  • Addiction manifests itself by one’s engagement in a substance and the resulting harm from that engagement.
  • Addiction denotes repeated involvement with something, to the point of real harm coming from that involvement.
  • Addiction is ongoing, in that it offers some sort of pleasure or reward to the individual so afflicted with the addiction, and that pleasure and reward outweighs that person’s concern for their own safety.
  • An addiction implies an inability on the part of the person to control his drinking or not drinking.

People can and do drink alcohol without appearing to be addicted to it. This appearance is often misleading, but we can accept that there are some individuals who drink alcohol without seeming to face consequences from it. However, it may only be a matter of time or circumstance until they are. When someone’s drinking habit involves engagement in alcohol consumption to the point of harm to themselves or others, when one’s drinking is repeated, and when one’s drinking is ongoing and out of his/her personal control, then one has a legitimate addiction to alcohol.

Take note here that there are no delineations between problem drinking, at-risk drinking, full-on alcoholism, etc. Sometimes, people believe erroneously that if they are not drinking every day, they do not have a problem. But note that nowhere in any definition of alcoholism will it say that one’s regularity of drinking is a necessary factor.

Someone who drinks heavily on the weekend needs just as much help to handle their habit as someone who uses alcohol every day. We can’t add these delineating factors to “how bad” one’s drinking habit is, as any kind of drinking habit should be avoided.

Alcohol Addiction Statistics – A Real Problem in 21st-Century America

Unfortunately, Americans are not doing well in avoiding drinking habits. As the overall drug problem has grown in the U.S., so has the alcohol problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly eighty-eight thousand people die because of alcohol abuse every year. The result? Two-and-a-half million years of potential life lost every year.

Pile of crashed bottles.

Alcoholism hits hardest among the working class—the working-age men and women of the United States. In fact, alcohol is responsible for about one in ten deaths among individuals ages twenty to sixty-four. And not only is alcohol consumption extensive and dangerous, but it’s expensive, too. The economic toll on our nation from alcoholism rests around two-hundred to two-hundred fifty billion dollars a year.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s research shows that about fifteen million Americans ages eighteen and older meet the criteria for a drinking problem. That comes out to about eight percent of men and four percent of women in this age group. Unfortunately, only about six percent of those fifteen million addicts receive any kind of treatment help in any given year.

The NIAAA also reports on the sheer impact of alcohol abuse on the average American family. Keep in mind that when a person engages in an alcohol habit, they are not just hurting themselves. They are hurting themselves and everyone who is close to them. The NIAAA estimates that more than ten percent of all U.S. children are now living with at least one parent who has an alcohol problem. This can adversely affect these children’s lives, giving them an uncertain future and a likely unpleasant past and present.

The web resource Everyday Health published an article on the subject of alcoholism and drinking, discussing the ins and outs of alcoholism and the prevalence of alcoholism in America today. According to their article, almost thirty percent of Americans will misuse alcohol and will actually meet the criteria for alcoholism, at some point in their lives. It might not last for long, and it might only happen during one period of their lives, but the fact remains that Americans walk on a narrow sidewalk that is far too close to the roaring interstate freeway that is alcoholism.

Invest Time in Helping Alcohol Addicts

Holding hands—help concept.

Rather than spending time meaninglessly arguing about the definitions or causations of alcoholism, we should instead be working to help people who struggle with a drinking problem. No matter where people are at with their drinking, if they have a problem, they need to get help for it.

If you believe you may have a problem with Alcohol, it’s likely that you do and the sooner you get help the less you will have to lose. When someone is being crippled by a drinking habit, the goal needs to be on getting them into addiction treatment, not just getting them to dry out for a while. Someone who has had a problem with alcohol or other substances in the past is at a high risk of relapse when alcohol is involved. Identifying the problem early is the best way to prevent loss of life or continued addiction.


Reviewed and edited by Claire Pinelli ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.