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A Brief History of Alcoholism

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Addictive substances have been available for thousands of years. However, addiction could not have begun until human beings developed agriculture (about 13,000 years ago). Prior to that time hunter-gatherer groups did not have access to addictive substances in sufficient quantities to cause addiction. Once we became able to produce alcohol and grow other addictive substances (marijuana, opium, peyote) in larger quantities it then became possible for addiction to arise.

woman drinking wineAlcohol has probably been the most widely available addictive substance. Other addictive substances were limited to regions where specific plants grew. However, by the mid-1800's chemists, often employed by pharmaceutical companies, began to manufacture drugs. These included amphetamine (1887), ecstasy (1912), PCP (1926), ketamine (1962) and other substances.

Although addiction cannot be considered a new problem, some people have suggested it is a growing problem; a problem of modern society. Because of the National Household Survey (SAMHSA, 2011), we know that addiction rises and falls in cycles lasting several decades. David Musto (1999), an American historian of addiction, has suggested it appears that every generation must discover for itself the negative consequences of particular substances. Thus we should expect more cycles or waves of substance use. When we review recent history we can identify several addiction "epidemics," These "epidemics" involved alcohol, opium, coffee and other substances. These epidemics rise and fall without any obvious explanation.

While addiction to chemical substances seems to rise and fall in cycles, the rise in obesity has been quite dramatic in recent decades, which seem to indicate some degree of addiction. Nonetheless, with the exception of obesity, it remains unknown whether addiction is on the rise. However, it is reasonable to suggest that addiction is a problem of modern society if we assume that 1) addiction is a response to stress, and 2) the world has become an increasingly stressful place. Then, it seems likely that more and more people would escape stress by turning to addictive behavior.

Historically, some cultures seem to have fewer problems with addiction than do others. For instance, the Italian, Spanish, French, Greek, Jewish, and Chinese have a lower risk for alcoholism and other addictions than do the citizens of the United States. Some people would argue this is evidence of a genetic basis for addiction. However, there are other equally plausible explanations for the differences observed between cultures. These low-risk cultures have very different cultural norms than the United States surrounding alcohol use. The low risk groups sanction of moderate alcohol use during meals, religious ceremonies, and celebrations. Perhaps more importantly, in these cultures there is strong disapproval of drunkenness. People do not consume alcohol with the sole purpose of becoming intoxicated as is frequently observed in the United States.