Alcoholics Anonymous, who strangely claims to have no official position on the disease theory of addiction, has been instrumental in promoting the theory that alcoholics have an allergy to alcohol which makes them drink. Since their “Big Book” was first published it contained a section titled “The Doctor’s Opinion” in which Dr. William Silkworth M.D. introduces this theory. It has been expanded upon and widely promoted over the years and much effort has been put into proving it scientifically to no avail. The theory now says that alcoholics have an allergic reaction to alcohol in which their body creates toxins which decrease inhibition and cause irresistible cravings for alcohol. This theory is the basis for the claim that moderation is impossible, and it has been applied to drugs other than alcohol as well. But as you’ll see, it falls apart when psychological studies show that alcoholics who supposedly have this allergy which leads to loss of control over drinking don’t lose control of their drinking when they don’t know they’re drinking alcohol!
In 1973 Alan Marlatt of the University of Washington’s Addictive Behaviors Research Center asked an important question.(XIX) He wondered if expectancy is a more influential factor in excessive drinking than the actual physical properties of alcohol. His team formulated an experiment in which both alcoholics and social drinkers were subjected to four different conditions. One group was told they’d be drinking alcohol and indeed were given alcohol. The next group was told they’d be drinking nonalcoholic beverages and that’s exactly what they were given. Another group was told they’d be drinking alcohol but were instead given nonalcoholic drinks. And the final group was told they’d be drinking nonalcoholic beverages but were given alcohol. Important to the study was the fact that the alcoholic drinks the researchers gave out were a mixture of vodka and tonic in which the alcohol was undetectable by taste. Here’s what Marlatt wrote summing up his study:
“The results showed that for both alcoholics and social drinkers, subjects who expected to sample a drink containing alcohol drank almost twice as much beverage as those who expected to receive only tonic, regardless of the actual presence or absence of vodka in the drink. The findings provided a challenge to the disease model theory of loss of control.”
If alcoholics really had the allergy to alcohol that disease proponents claim then it wouldn’t matter what they thought that they were drinking, they would drink uncontrollably once they had alcohol in their system- but they didn’t. This study shows that people don’t drink more because they’re under the control of alcohol, they drink more because they’re expecting the intoxicating effects of alcohol, therefore the allergy model of addiction is null and void. People drink more because they consciously want the effect of alcohol, not because some biological mechanism or supposed allergy is forcing them to do so.
This allergy model of addiction is yet another blatant abuse and bastardization of a medical term by the treatment and recovery world. An allergy is hypersensitivity to a specific substance such as pollen or a particular food, and one could quite possibly have an allergic reaction to alcohol, but the results would be far different than they’re portrayed within the recovery movement. According to the authorities on alcoholism, alcoholics have an allergy to alcohol which causes them to keep drinking uncontrollably after they’ve had one drink. This is apparently the only allergy that has purely behavioral symptoms, but unfortunately there is no reliable body of evidence to support these claims. An allergic reaction is an automatic physiological reaction, common allergic reactions include difficulty breathing, irritation of the eyes, swelling, skin rashes, et-cetera – all involuntary physiological responses. There are however documented cases of people who have severe anaphylaxis after consuming alcohol. The symptoms of this very real all encompassing allergic reaction include nausea, vomiting, headaches, cramps, sneezing, coughing, diarrhea, swelling, itching, breathing difficulties, a drop in blood pressure, and possibly fatal shock. If you had this reaction you might decide to get yourself to the emergency room pretty quickly, you probably wouldn’t choose to drink more alcohol. Allergies elicit automatic physiological responses, not behavioral ones.
If someone presents you with the allergy theory of addiction then you should ask them for scientific evidence of this theory, they will have none, because there is none. But they may spout out some random results from unreliable studies, or they’ll throw around some impressive medical jargon which is often the case with proponents of the disease theory. They may talk about neurotransmitters, THIQ’s, Alcohol Dehydrogenase, or other biological elements involved in the processing of alcohol, but all of this is meaningless when faced with the truths evidenced by studies such as Alan Marlatt’s (listed above). The facts are that people drink because they desire the effects of alcohol, not because a taste or whiff of alcohol sent their body into some auto-pilot mode in which they have no control over their behavior.
G. Alan Marlatt, Current Contents. Number 18, May 16, 1985 P18. The study was originally published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 81:233-41.1973.
There’s Much More Evidence (added 9/11/2013)
To those of you who have thought or commented that “this is only one experiment”, I offer you a review of 9 similar priming dose experiments. Again and again, it has been shown that alcohol does not trigger an automatic response of “uncontrolled” drinking. See this page for more info and full citations: Do Alcoholics Lose Control? The Results of Priming Dose Experiments Say NO