Alcohol Laws in the U.S. – A Guide to Legal Usage

Alcohol consumption is big business the world over, especially in the United States. In 2017, the gross revenue of alcoholic beverages amounted to almost $72 billion. That’s greater than the gross domestic products of Iceland, Papua New Guinea, and Afghanistan combined.

What’s more, alcohol consumption is celebrated as a pastime of sorts. It is the centerpiece for numerous social activities, from after work gatherings and graduation parties to wedding receptions and funeral repasts. In America, it possesses a commercial and cultural ubiquity that other legalized intoxicants don’t have.

For example, the beer company Anheuser-Busch spent the most advertising dollars for a parent company in the world’s biggest sporting event, the 2018 Super Bowl.

The fact that alcohol consumption is legal and so entrenched in society covers over the manifold dangers that overconsumption and addiction bring. There are laws in place to govern its use, such as the benchmark National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which set the legal drinking age at 21. There are criminal penalties for operating motor vehicles, boats, and other machinery under the influence.

Yet, those laws have not been enough to stop people from engaging in underage consumption, drinking to excess, or operating vehicles or other machinery while intoxicated.  There are millions more who suffer from the manifold physical, mental, and legal ramifications of alcohol use.

Laws help, but they are not an effective enough deterrent to dependency and addiction. Where laws and regulations stop, professional addiction treatment can step in to help mitigate the worst consequences of abusing alcohol.

ARE YOU STRUGGLING WITH ADDICTION AND SEEKING HELP? GET IN TOUCH WITH ONE OF OUR TREATMENT SPECIALISTS NOW.

ARE YOU STRUGGLING WITH ADDICTION AND SEEKING HELP? GET IN TOUCH WITH ONE OF OUR TREATMENT SPECIALISTS NOW.

A History of Alcohol in America

Alcohol has been around for thousands of years as it was extolled as an elixir that bestowed supernatural properties. Noah from the Bible was said to have created a vineyard, cultivated wine, and became intoxicated as a result.

alcohol law

In the late 18th century, just before the U.S. would become a nation, the average American colonial settler was said to have consumed about 3.5 gallons of alcohol a year. They drank fermented peach juice and apple cider. They brewed their own beer. They drank rum that was imported from the West Indies. Many started their days with a drink, and alcohol was enjoyed with every meal. Even small children would consume alcohol, though it would be the “sugary dregs of their parents’ rum toddies,” as this one article describes.

The cultivation and consumption of alcohol would become a driver of American politics.

Activists railed against alcohol in response to the ills it produced in society such as alcoholism, violence, and death via liver cirrhosis. Temperance and religious activists formed a movement that led to the constitutional ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. This would be known as the 18th Amendment, which ushered in an era regarded as Prohibition. That ban could not stem the tide of underground criminal individuals and enterprises from bootlegging alcohol.

Prohibition ended when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act in March of 1933, which legalized low alcohol content beer and wine. The act was voided months later when the 21st Amendment was ratified in December of that same year. The 21st Amendment repealed the constitutional ban.

Public opinion turned against Prohibition, even though the period helped to reduce liquor consumption, death rates, mental hospital admissions, and work absenteeism.

Alcohol was legal and flowing again. But in the late 1960s and 1970s, nearly every state lowered the drinking age to 18. But this led to an unprecedented increase in alcohol-related car accidents. In the mid-1970s, traffic crashes were the leading cause of alcohol-related deaths. Two-thirds of traffic deaths for persons ages 16-20 were due to alcohol as well, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In essence, drunk driving became a full-fledged public health crisis.  

This necessitated the passing of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. The law required every state to raise the drinking age to 21 or lose a portion of federal highway funding. The law did not ban alcohol consumption per se, just its purchase. Though some states and the District of Columbia would extend the law into an outright ban.

The measure is credited with cutting alcohol-related deaths of persons ages 16-20 in half, saving more than 150,000 lives during a 19-year period, according to the NIH.

A majority of the states have a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 percent as the legal limit for driving while impaired (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI). For commercial drivers, the BAC is set at .04 percent. Anyone who exceeds that can be convicted of a DWI or DUI. For a first offense, what a conviction looks like in hard terms is a fine of between $500 – $1,000, a six-month jail sentence, and a license suspension of at least six months. Multiple offenses result in tougher penalties. For example, someone who incurs a fourth DUI offense could expect a jail sentence of up to five years and a permanent license suspension.

What’s more, all states have a kind of ignition interlock program where convicted drunk drivers are required to install interlocks into their cars that disable the engine if alcohol is detected on their breath.

There is clear evidence that alcohol laws can have a tangible impact on behavior.  Despite these measures, there are people who still consume alcohol in excess either over time on a single occasion or both. They become dependent on alcohol and drink in the face of harsh complications and consequences.

Millions of adults, age 18 and over, suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD). According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually. Globally, alcohol misuse is considered the fifth leading risk factor for premature death and disability.

What these stats amount to is this: individuals continue to get addicted to alcohol despite the litany of risks, whether health, legal, or otherwise.   

The Signs of Alcohol Addiction

The dangers associated with alcohol consumption are widely known. Like any other substance, alcohol addiction is a disease of the brain. It is characterized by one’s inability to “consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response,” states the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

That hard signs of alcohol addiction manifest with these behaviors:

  • You have blackouts and/or memory losses.
  • You get into accidents or sustain injuries after you drink.
  • Drinking gets in the way of your job, school, or other activities and obligations because you are sick or hungover.
  • You drink even though it will make health complications or mental health issues worse.
  • You drink even though you might engage in an activity like driving, boating, or something else that becomes dangerous when alcohol use is involved.

A drinker will crave more alcohol to experience the same effects as before and may exhibit the following signs and behaviors:

  • You lose control over how much you drink.
  • You give up hobbies or favorite pastimes to drink.
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms when you go without drinking such as feeling sweaty, shaky, anxious, or sick.
  • You spend the majority of your time drinking or recovering from drinking.
  • You drink even though it harms your family, friendships, career, or education.
  • You begin your day drinking; you drink alone, or stay drunk for long periods.
  • You try to hide your drinking and make excuses.
  • You cannot quit drinking despite repeated attempts.
  • You consistently turn to alcohol to relieve stress or solve problems.
  • Alcohol is at the center of your life. You always make sure you have enough on hand and only engage in social activities that include drinking.

The CAGE Questionnaire is another way to assess whether alcoholic symptoms are present:

  1. Have you ever felt you should Cut down on your drinking?
  2. Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  3. Have you ever felt bad or Guilty about your drinking?
  4. Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover (Eye-opener)?

If you answer “yes” to two or more questions, then that typically indicates dependency. Professional help and treatment are necessary to halt this cycle of destruction before it consumes your life.    

alcohol addiction

Why Going “Cold Turkey” Can Be Harmful

Alcohol laws were intended to prevent people from drinking so much that they become a harm to others and themselves. Thousands are penalized or jailed for alcohol-related offenses, but the damage they inflict on their bodies is far greater. Because of the many short and long-term health complications that arise from alcohol misuse, attempting to quit on your own by going “cold turkey” can be dangerous.

Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol use can present themselves within eight hours of your last drink, and they can even appear days later.  Withdrawal symptoms in drinkers peak in 24 hours to 72 hours, but can endure even longer, sometimes weeks. The harmful symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Jumpiness or shakiness
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Unclear thinking
  • Nightmares

You may also experience other symptoms, such as:

  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Sweaty, clammy skin
  • Dilated pupils
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Tremor of the hands or other body parts
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pallor (pale and unhealthy pale appearance)

Additionally, a severe form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens (DTs), can occur and cause these symptoms:

  • Agitation
  • Fever
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Severe confusion

If your alcohol use has made you decline into addiction, acknowledging your problem and accepting professional treatment has proven to be the surest path to a full recovery.

Why Is Alcohol Addiction Treatment Important?

The first, most critical step in alcohol addiction treatment is medical detoxification. The goal of detox is to rid your body of the alcohol and other toxins to ease you through withdrawal as safely and comfortably as possible. You will receive round-the-clock care from our experienced medical staff. They will help you avoid dangerous medical complications and ensure that you do not succumb to relapse.

Because alcoholism is a disease of the brain, care that addresses the psychological causes of your addiction is critical as well. That’s why residential treatment is recommended. In this setting, you will receive comprehensive therapy and counseling while you stay at a rehabilitation facility. Experts say that 90 days in a residential program is the most effective treatment plan.

You will meet with clinicians and therapists who will help you create a plan tailored to your needs. The staff will consider every pressing need you may have, including psychological, medical, emotional, vocational, and financial requirements.

After a stint in residential treatment, you may want to consider long-term outpatient services such as a 12-step program, which can help you remain accountable and avoid relapse.

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Why Is Alcohol So Dangerous?

Alcohol abuse left untreated can set off health complications that can consume your body, including your brain, heart, liver, and pancreas. Excessive drinking over a long period or during a single occasion can cause life-threatening health problems such as:

  • Arrhythmia, also known as an irregular heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiomyopathy, the stretching and drooping of the heart muscle
  • Stroke

Excessive alcohol consumption can do a number on your liver, causing problems such as:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Steatosis, or fatty liver
  • Fibrosis
  • Cirrhosis

There are also links between alcoholism and these types of cancers: liver, colorectal, breast, esophageal, and head and neck cancers.  

And if that wasn’t enough, there are the treacherous cognitive impairments that alcohol can exact, many of which can result in legal, social, and professional consequences. The ripple effect of alcohol-fueled decisions often leads to hard, real-world consequences such as:

  • Domestic disputes
  • Car accidents
  • Arrests and imprisonment
  • Hospitalization
  • Job loss
  • Child endangerment
  • Divorce
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Death

Alcohol Addiction Statistics

  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 3.3 million deaths, or 5.9 percent of all global deaths were due to alcohol consumption in 2012.
  • Alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes today.
  • About 3 million violent crimes occur every year where victims perceive that their offenders have been drinking.   
  • For people under age 21, excessive drinking causes 4,300 deaths each year.

Ready to get help?

Let our treatment experts call you today.

Start Your Alcohol Addiction Treatment Today

Alcohol laws and regulations are meant to govern our behaviors. They give us a framework for proper alcohol consumption. But in many cases, that is not enough. Professional addiction treatment is the only thing that can lead you back to a healthy, normal life.  

Ocean Breeze Recovery is here to help you achieve sustained recovery, safely and effectively.

Call (855) 960-5341 anytime, day or evening, for a free consultation with one of our knowledgeable addiction recovery specialists. They can help you locate the right treatment option. You also can reach us online for more information.