The Effect of Alcohol on Social Order

Iva Lo

It is often hinted that drinks are related to violence. Before we can investigate the relationship between alcohol and social order, we have to first understand how alcohol affects the brain.

How alcohol affects the brain

Alcohol, known chemically as ethanol (CH3CH2OH), is broken down in the body by enzymes alcohol dehydrogenase(ADH), catalayse and cytochrome P450 2E1 (CYP2E1); which temporarily transforms the chemical into a toxic compound named acetaldehyde (CH3CHO) before it is further broken down. While alcohol is mainly metabolized by the liver, the brain also helps with the process together with the pancreas and the stomach.

The chemical breakdown of alcohol:

CH3CH3OH      enzyme      > CH3CHO      enzyme      > CH3COO

The acetaldehyde produced in the brain during the process is believed to be responsible for some effects of alcohol. When acetaldehyde is administered to lab animals, it leads to lack of coordination, memory impairment and sleeplessness, typical symptoms of alcohol intoxication. A common perception is that acetaldehyde causes reversible changes in specific receptors and associated molecules.

The basis of brain networks is communication from cell to cell by neurotransmitters (chemical messages) that cross the synapse (the narrow gap between cells) to activate proteins called receptors. Receptors, in turn, lead to a series of molecular interactions within the receiving cell. By disrupting neurotransmissions and depressing the activity of the central nervous system, the intermediate byproduct of alcohol metabolism acts as a depressant drug.

Some damaging effects of alcohol are shown to be detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly resolve when the drinking stops. For example, the degree of memory impairment quickly increases with the increase in amount of alcohol consumption. In some cases, consumptions of large quantities of alcohol can produce a blackout. In a US college survey, students experiencing blackouts reported learning later that they had participated in a wide range of potentially dangerous events they could not remember, including vandalism, unprotected sex and driving.

In contrary to the belief that alcohol only has temporary effects on the brain, chronic alcohol exposure will result in permanent changes collectively known as ‘neuroadaptation’, including the change in the production of critical proteins and physical changes in the structure of signaling and receiving cells. Neuroadaptation is directly linked to the development of alcohol addiction. It also gives alcoholics a persistent sense of discomfort often described as ‘craving’ and can lead to relapse even after long periods of abstinence. 

Alcohol and social order

Drink-driving and violence are the two major social problems associated with the use of alcohol. Drink driving occurs in almost every country with vehicles. Japan and most countries in Europe have relatively low rates in drink-driving due to strict laws and frequent police checks for drunk drivers. Also, the well-developed urban mass-transit systems in those countries allow people to have alternatives to driving after they have been out drinking. In Hong Kong, drink driving is a criminal offense. With effect from 9 February 2009, police officers in uniform can conduct a breath test on drivers without the need of reasonable suspicion.

Although drinking is a problem with all age groups except children, it is a particular problem among college students and high school students, especially in the US. As drinking can lead to serious social problems, it is essential for us to take steps in raising public awareness of the problem in society.


The use of alcohol is an accepted part of modern culture. While alcoholics adversely affect society, they only account for a small percentage of the population. Most alcohol users are social drinkers. However, social drinkers may also succumb to violence when they are under the effects of alcohol. Thus even in a world without alcoholics, social order can still be threatened by the use of alcohol.

Although alcohol is considered a depressant and is properly considered a drug, the suggestion of restricting the amount of alcohol consumption is likely to cause public outcry as wine is regarded an important component in many cuisines. The most effective solution to the problems caused by the use of alcohol is therefore education. By studying the effects of alcohol on the brain, one would perhaps be intimidated by them and refrain from drinking.


NIAAA ‘the Alcohol Alert’ Publications no. 61, 63 & 72:

Hong Kong Transport Department page on drink-driving:

‘Social Problems – A Brief Introduction’ by James William Coleman & Harold R. Kerbo P.292-295


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