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2. Concepts and definitions

Concepts and definitions are particularly important to the subject of drug use and drug problems.(2) This subject often evokes emotional responses because of our own ambivalence towards drug use. The literature on this subject also leads to much confusion.

Many myths have been created and perpetuated about drug use and drug problems over the last 30 years. A consensus is now being reached concerning the most valuable concepts, and the way that different words should be used.

If drug users are to be helped to avoid problems and to minimise their disabilities, it is important that simple terms should be understood and used uniformly.


This term refers to any chemical that changes the mental state and that may be used repeatedly for that effect by a person. Some are likely to adversely affect the health of the individual and the social surroundings.

'Drug' now includes alcohol, tobacco, psychoactive pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs and substances such as petrol, some fluorocarbons and anabolic steroids.


Experimental use: trying out the drug to experience its effect and to decide whether or not to adopt an ongoing pattern of use.

Social and recreational use: using the drug as a means of enhancing social interaction or the enjoyment of some leisure activity.

Symptomatic use: using the drug as a means of reducing unpleasant sensations or experiences or to avoid challenging situations or responsibilities.

Dependent use: using the drug with a sense of compulsion, so that other responsibilities are neglected and harm may result.

Such dependent use becomes habitual, stereotyped in pattern, and responsive to external cues and pressures. This pattern is quickly reinstituted after a period of abstinence. Abstinence may be associated with the onset of withdrawal symptoms and the discomfort of withdrawal will become a motivator for renewed drug use.


Drug dependence syndrome describes the pattern of behaviour shown by, and the physical changes experienced by, drug-dependent users.

Psychological dependence describes the behavioural aspects of drug dependence.

Physical dependence exists in a tissue or intact organism when the presence of the drug is necessary for normal functioning. It refers to the tolerance which develops to the effects of drug use and to the withdrawal effects experienced when drug use is stopped.

Neuroadaptation describes the altered sensitivity of cells, as well as the patterns of behavioural and auto-physiological responses which develop with repeated drug use


Addiction, a term which has been in use for thousands of years, means to give oneself to either a person or a behaviour pattern. Addiction is a universal term and applies to those who give themselves to a wide variety of behaviours often to the extent that their lives become unmanageable. Addiction to alcohol and drugs is only an example of this pattern of behaviour. However, once an addiction is established that behaviour tends to be relied upon increasingly.

There are a number of characteristics evident with an addiction:

  1. A strong desire or sense of compulsion to engage in the particular behaviour (especially when the opportunity to engage in such behaviour is not available);
  2. Impaired capacity to control the behaviour (notably in terms of controlling its onset, staying off, or controlling the level at which the behaviour occurs);
  3. Discomfort and distress when the behaviour is prevented or stops; and
  4. Persisting with the behaviour despite clear evidence that it is leading to problems

While not all of these characteristics are present in every instance of addictive behaviour, a sense of compulsion tends to be an essential element. Together these four features provide a good picture of addictive behaviour with its sense of compulsion, the difficulty of maintaining control over the behaviour, the distress associated with withdrawal, and the persistence that such behaviours show once they have become established (Gossop, 1989).

People with an addiction need to face the reality of the situation and to have some positive experiences in order to regain self-esteem and hope. They must attempt to acquire a new set of values or personal orientation in order to achieve successful control and cure.


This term refers to all the harm a person may experience as a result of the use of drugs.

Such disabilities include a whole range of adverse health and social consequences which may be experienced as either direct or indirect consequence of drug use.

Direct consequences

These include:

Indirect consequences

These include:

Drug-related disabilities may occur in all types of drug users but are more likely to occur as the frequency and quantity of drug use increases. Accordingly it is possible to categorise drug users in terms of the risk of their experiencing harm. In practice this has been done only with alcohol, eg 'Low risk drinking'.


Intoxication may be defined as the intake of a quantity of a substance which exceeds the individual's tolerance and produces behavioural or physical abnormalities.


Overdose may be defined as the state that occurs when a person has ingested a drug quantity higher than the recommended therapeutic dose and that also exceeds his or her tolerance.


This term is now not recommended for use because it can have many meanings and is used as a pejorative term implying a deliberate misuse of drugs regardless of consequences. Alternative phrases may be used which are less explicit and pejorative in nature.


This term describes the new approach being taken to all drug-related problems. The aim of any intervention is not so much stopping drug use but focusing on the reduction of specific drug-related harm.


Detoxification can be defined as the means by which the drug-dependent person may withdraw from the effects of that drug in a supervised way in order that withdrawal symptoms and the risks relating to withdrawal are minimised. .i.detoxification;


Safe drinking or responsible drinking
Low risk drinking
Hazardous drinking
Clinical signs and symptoms of possible hazardous alcohol use
Harmful drinking
Dysfunctional drinking
Binge drinking
Alcoholism, alcoholic, problem drinker
Standard drinks – grams of alcohol
A harmful dose of alcohol
Alcohol content
Indices of harm
Blood alcohol concentration
Harm and blood alcohol concentration

Safe drinking or responsible drinking (4)

No specific level or pattern of drinking alcohol should be considered safe.

It has been agreed on the basis of available evidence that a range of drinking which most people would consider low risk and drinking which is considered hazardous, dangerous or dysfunctional, can be defined.

Low risk drinking

        Female                                  Male

        Never more than                         Never more than

        two standard drinks                     four standard drinks

        in a day)                               in a day

        (except for pregnancy)

(1 standard drink = 10 grams of alcohol)

Figure: one standard drink


Hazardous drinking

Hazardous drinking refers to:

Clinical signs and symptoms of possible hazardous alcohol use

These include:

(Note: not in order of priority.)

Harmful drinking

Harmful drinking is defined as:

Dysfunctional drinking

Dysfunctional drinking is defined as:

Binge drinking

Binge drinking has been described as the consumption of alcohol to intoxication in a very short period of time. Generally there are two forms of binge drinking:

  1. Drinking heavily on a single occasion, ie the consumption of five or more drinks in one drinking session.
  2. Heavy and continuous drinking over a number of days or weeks. This form of drinking may be characteristic of people who have high levels of tolerance for alcohol or are susceptible to alcohol dependence.

Binge drinking is particularly evident among young people, usually in the form of a number of bouts of drinking in the course of a week. This form of drinking may affect an individual's cognition, distractability, information-processing ability, and increase the risk of alcohol-related accidents (Pols and Hawks, 1992).

Alcoholism, alcoholic, problem drinker (5)

These terms should be used with great caution in order to avoid misunderstanding.

Alcoholism can be used to cover the whole range of alcohol-related disabilities. However, alcoholism has acquired a host of meanings by association with the disease concept of alcoholism. This implies that it is a progressive and irreversible condition that can be arrested but never cured, and involving a special sensitivity in the sufferer who experiences craving for alcohol and loss of control of its use.

This disease concept of alcoholism can be useful but it also has many disadvantages. It certainly can lead to unreasonable expectations and to the adoption of a passive role by the drinker. It can promote a false sense of confidence in drinkers who believe that alcoholics are a race apart. The idea of alcoholism as a disease can distract drinkers and helpers from the fact that the central issue relates to the priorities and motivation of the drinker and the drinker's capacity to control his habits or behaviour.

Alcoholic can be used as an adjective, ie alcoholic liver disease, which indicates the problem is related to the use of alcohol. It may also be used as a noun ('he is an alcoholic'). However, such usage is poor communication, with many emotional overtones. It implies a simplicity of understanding which does not reflect the complexity of human behaviour. Because of this, it is advised that the term not be used as a noun.

Problem drinker and drinking problem are loose terms that are better replaced by other more specific terms, namely hazardous, harmful and dysfunctional drinking.

Standard drinks – grams of alcohol

It is essential in taking a history of alcohol consumption to determine the amount of absolute alcohol (100% ethanol) consumed by the patient. To simplify this process it is customary to estimate the number of standard drinks consumed per day and during a typical week.

A standard drink is defined as the amount of any particular alcoholic beverage that contains approximately 10 grams (12.5 mL of ethanol) which is generally equivalent to the usual drink served at a hotel or restaurant (see figure showing range of standard drinks).

We need also to list the patient's intake as a number of standard drinks per day or per week. Then by multiplying this number by ten we can calculate the number of grams of alcohol consumed. This will allow us to determine whether the drinking is responsible, hazardous or harmful. Recent research indicates that people have difficulty estimating consumption of standard drinks using the information that is currently available on alcoholic beverage containers.

A harmful dose of alcohol

Harmful dose is an amount of alcohol likely to cause a harmful effect. In older terminology, it would cause an alcohol-related problem.

Dose: alcohol consumption should be expressed in grams – so many grams per drink consumed, so many grams on a single drinking occasion, so many grams on an average daily basis over an extended period of years.

Alcohol content

The alcohol content of various beverages is expressed in two ways:

Indices of harm

Harm due to alcohol consumption is manifested in a variety of ways:

Some problems are indirect effects. There may be physical, social, psychological or behavioural problems which occur because of hazardous or harmful alcohol use. For example:

Blood alcohol concentration

This can be expressed as mg alcohol/100 mL of blood eg 50 mg/100 mL = 0.05% or more commonly mg alcohol/100 mL of blood as grams per cent eg 0.05 g%

The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is determined by two main factors:

Many drinkers, especially chronic drinkers, do not start on a drinking session with a zero BAC.

One can only generalise in predicting the likely BAC. In a male weighing 70 kilograms, 10 grams of alcohol usually raises the BAC by 0.02 grams per 100 mL of blood. The rate of elimination is about 8 grams per hour, resulting in a fall in the BAC of about 0.015 grams per 100 mL per hour.

Harm and blood alcohol concentration

Driving skills begin to deteriorate at 0.03-0.04 grams per 100 mL.

Certain cognitive and other cerebral functions are impaired: judgment, processing information, consciousness, vision. Significant deterioration occurs at 0.05-0.08. A rapid decline in skills then occurs with small increments in the BAC.

The same impaired cerebral functions affect all forms of skilled performance at work, during leisure activities, etc.

Disinhibition is related to the BAC. Disturbed behaviour often resulting in antisocial acts may become manifest between 0.06 and 0.10 g%.

Loss of control seems to be in part related to the BAC, occurring at about 0.04-0.06 g%.

These effects can result from a single drinking episode in any type of drinker.


In 1992 the National Health and Medical Research Council published a series of recommendations regarding responsible drinking behaviour.

(Please refer to the chart on page 11 for further details of the alcohol content of the usual Australian standard drinks.)


Guidelines for the safe consumption of alcohol must be devised acknowledging that alcohol does much to enrich our social life. At the same time the serious consequences of alcohol consumption for individuals and societies cannot be overlooked.

Guidelines must be devised which recognise the complexity of the effects of alcohol on different organs of the body, the range of patterns of alcohol consumption, and the influence of other compounding factors such as gender and nutrition.

The guidelines may need to be modified according to the circumstances of the individual case including general health, presence or absence of personal or family history of drug or alcohol dependence, occupation and especially the context in which alcohol is to be consumed.

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