The Impact of Alcohol on Society

The Impact Reaches Far Beyond the Financial Costs

Daughter Looking at Mother
Alcoholism and children. Richard Hutchings / Getty Images

The cost of alcohol abuse on society is staggering, but the impact of alcohol reaches far beyond the financial costs. Alcohol impacts marriages and every member of the family, extends into the community, schools, the workplace, the healthcare system and into society as a whole.

Approximately 14 million people in the United States meet the criteria for severe alcohol use disorders and many others would be diagnosed with mild or moderate disorders.

Alcohol is implicated in more than 88,000 deaths per year in the US.

Alcoholism has a huge social and financial impact on society, but it is not necessarily the alcoholics that cause the most damage. It is estimated that more than three-quarters of the cost of excessive alcohol consumption in the U.S. is due to binge drinking, and most binge drinkers are not alcohol-dependent.

The Financial Costs of Alcohol Abuse

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the cost of excessive alcohol use in the U.S. in 2010 reached $249 billion. Of this total, 77 percent was attributed to binge drinking, defined as four or more alcoholic beverages per occasion for women or five or more drinks per occasion for men.

The almost one-quarter trillion dollars spent on alcohol-related expenses in 2010 averages out nationally to $807 per person—every man, woman, and child in the country.

And, if you think that you are not paying your part of the bill, think again.

Of every $5 spent because of alcohol abuse, $2 came from taxpayers. The CDC estimates that 40 percent of the $249 billion was paid by federal, state, and local governments.

Where Is the Money Going?

The money spent on alcohol-related expenses in 2010 went toward:

  • 72 percent for lost workplace productivity
  • 11 percent for healthcare costs
  • 10 percent for crime and law enforcement
  • 5 percent for motor vehicle crashes

The CDC estimates that these figures are all underestimated because alcohol's involvement in sickness, injury, and death is not always available or reported. These figures also do not include some medical and mental health conditions that are the result of excessive alcohol use.

Also not included in these figures are the work days that family members miss due to the drinking of another member. Nor included is the pain and suffering caused by the disability, injury, or death of someone due to excessive alcohol consumption.

Moreover, these costs are increasing. The $249 billion in costs in 2010 had grown from $223.5 billion in 2006.

Loss of Workplace Productivity

Alcohol abuse cost employers money in lost production days and much of that is from absenteeism when workers fail to show up after a night of drinking. However, research has found that it is not only the heavy drinkers or the alcoholics who miss the most days at work, but the light to moderate drinkers to occasionally binge drink.

Some researchers demonstrate the relationship between drinking and absenteeism as a U–shaped curve with moderate drinkers absent from work least frequently, but both heavy drinkers and people who drank little absent more often.

There is speculation that the reason heavy drinkers miss fewer work days than the occasional binge drinkers is that those who are developing come to work regularly to cover up their drinking problem and to avoid using up sick leave or being fired.

Absenteeism vs. Poor Job Performance

But, this creates a new set of problems for employers in the form of:

  • Injuries on the job
  • Showing up late
  • Taking longer breaks
  • Sleeping on the job
  • Lower level of productivity

Therefore, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimates that alcohol consumption may have more effect on productivity on the job than on the number of workdays missed.

Healthcare Costs of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol consumption is a risk factor in 25 chronic diseases and conditions entirely attributable to alcohol, and alcohol plays a significant role in certain cancers, psychiatric conditions, and numerous cardiovascular and digestive diseases. Additionally, alcohol consumption can impact diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.

The cost of treating these diseases and conditions, as well as treating alcoholism and addiction itself, is enormous, but the large majority of the estimated $28 billion spent in annual alcohol-related healthcare cost goes toward the treatment of unintentional and intentional alcohol-related injuries.

Leading Risk Factor in Deaths Due to Injury

Alcohol consumption is a leading risk factor for morbidity and mortality related to both intentional and unintentional injury.

A large percentage of annual healthcare expenditures for alcohol-related injuries goes toward injuries and deaths from vehicular crashes, but research has found a high level of alcohol involvement in all types of unintentional injuries.

Alcohol-Involved Unintentional Injury

Percentages vary from study to study, but generally, alcohol has been found to be involved in:

  • 90 percent of cold/hypothermia injuries
  • 63.3 percent of falls
  • 49.2 percent of drownings
  • 48.7 percent of accidental gunshots
  • 38.5 percent of all unintentional injuries
  • 37.9 percent of burns and fire injuries
  • 26.6 percent of poisonings

Alcohol-Related Aggression and Violence

Along with unintentional injury, alcohol plays a significant role in intentional injuries as a result of aggression and violence. Alcohol has been linked to physical violence by a variety of research studies, although science may not yet understand how alcohol contributes to violent behavior.

Over the years, the percentages have changed from one study to another, but these are the estimated percentages of alcohol involvement in the following intentional fatalities due to violence:

  • 57 percent of stabbings
  • 50 percent of drownings
  • 47.1 percent of all homicides
  • 40.7 percent of beatings
  • 38.9 percent of gunshots
  • 36.4 percent of burns
  • 29.7 percent of suffocations

On top of the healthcare cost of alcohol-related intentional violence in the U.S., the estimated annual cost to the criminal justice system is another estimated $25 billion.

Alcohol's Effect on the Family

The social impact of alcohol abuse is a separate issue from the financial costs involved, and that impact begins in the home, extends into the community, and to society as a whole just as the financial impact does.

Various NIAAA sources demonstrate the social influence of alcohol abuse disorders:

  • Each alcoholic affects the lives of 7-8 other people.
  • 50 percent of adults have a close family member who has or has had alcoholism.
  • One-fourth of all children are affected by an alcoholic

Excessive drinking by one partner or the other or both can put stress on the relationship or marriage. Research shows that in addition to the harm that alcohol abuse causes the drinkers, family members—especially spouses and children—are likely to be harmed also.

A massive amount of research into the effects of alcohol abuse on families shows us that alcohol:

  • Plays a role in intimate partner violence
  • Causes families financial problems
  • Increases negative interactions during problem-solving
  • Impaired decision-making skills
  • Increases family and parenting responsibilities for non-drinking partner
  • Plays a factor in child neglect and abuse

As with the financial costs of alcohol abuse, studies have found that it is not just the heavy drinkers or alcoholics who experience family problems, but occasional binge drinkers do also. One study revealed that "spousal violence is more likely not only when a partner is alcohol dependent or a problem drinker, but also when the partner is an infrequent drinker who occasionally drinks heavily."

Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Children

Parental alcohol abuse can greatly impact the lives of children and that impact can begin in the womb. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is one of the most common direct consequences of parental alcohol use in the United States, caused by alcohol consumption by the mother during pregnancy.

Children with FAS display a variety of symptoms and defects, many of which are life-long and permanent. FAS is completely preventable by the mother's abstinence during pregnancy.

Children who do not have FAS, but grow up in alcoholic homes do not escape without being deeply affected. First of all, children with a family history of alcoholism are much more likely to begin drinking at an early age and develop alcohol use disorders themselves than children with no family history.

Affecting the World of a Child

Parental alcohol use can also affect the environment of children as the grow up. Alcohol abuse can play a part in:

  • Acute and chronic financial strain on the family
  • Poor parenting, including child neglect and abuse
  • Marital conflicts and family breakups
  • Creating alcohol outcome expectancies in children

Growing up in a home where at least one parent has a severe alcohol use disorder, often causes the child to develop psychological and emotional issues that follow them into adulthood and throughout their lives.

Effects Last Long Into Adulthood

As adults, children who grew up with an alcoholic parent are likely to develop common psychological characteristics which are prevalent not only in alcoholic homes but in those who grew up with other compulsive behaviors, such as gambling, drug abuse or overeating.

Many adults who grew up in alcoholic homes find recovery from the experience through support groups, counseling, or therapy. Others, however, never make it into recovery because they are simply unaware of how profoundly and deeply they were affected by growing up with an alcoholic.


Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, "The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic." (Attributed to Tony A., 1978). Accessed 2016

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Excessive Drinking is Draining the U.S. Economy." Data & Statistics January 2016

Gmel, G et al. "Harmful Alcohol Use." National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Publication Accessed 2016

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Measuring the Burden—Alcohol’s Evolving Impact on Individuals, Families, and Society." Alcohol Research: Current Reviews 2013

Moss HB, "The impact of alcohol on society: a brief overview." Social Work in Public Health 2013

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