Brief Description

Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is an intoxicating ingredient found in beer, wine, and liquor. Alcohol is produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugars, and starches. It is a central nervous system depressant that is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. A standard drink equals 0.6 ounces of pure ethanol, or 12 ounces of beer; 8 ounces of malt liquor; 5 ounces of wine; or 1.5 ounces (a “shot”) of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, or whiskey). NIDA does not conduct research on alcohol; for more information, please visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).


Alcohol affects every organ in the drinker’s body and can damage a developing fetus. Intoxication can impair brain function and motor skills; heavy use can increase risk of certain cancers, stroke, and liver disease. Alcoholism or alcohol dependence is a diagnosable disease characterized by a strong craving for alcohol, and/or continued use despite harm or personal injury. Alcohol abuse, which can lead to alcoholism, is a pattern of drinking that results in harm to one’s health, interpersonal relationships, or ability to work.

Statistics and Trends

Drinking by underage persons (ages 12–20) has declined. Current alcohol use by this age group declined from 28.8 to 24.3 percent between 2002 and 2012, while binge drinking declined from 19.3 to 15.3 percent and the rate of heavy drinking went from 6.2 to 4.3 percent.

Binge and heavy drinking are more prevalent among men than among women. In 2012, 30.4 percent of men 12 and older and 16.0 percent of women reported binge drinking (five or more drinks on the same occasion) in the past month; and 9.9 percent of men and 3.4 percent of women reported heavy alcohol use (binge drinking on at least five separate days in the past month).

Driving under the influence of alcohol has also declined slightly. In 2012, an estimated 29.1 million people, or 11.2 percent of persons aged 12 or older, had driven under the influence of alcohol at least once in the past year, down from 14.2 percent in 2002. Although this decline is encouraging, any driving under the influence remains a cause for concern.


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