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Consuming alcohol is legal in the majority of the U.S. for adults ages 21 and older. Alcohol is a beverage made from fermented grains or fruit, and it has been part of human civilization for at least 10,000 years. There are many kinds of alcohol from many cultures across the globe, although the types of alcohol are standardized to beer, wine, and liquor in the United States to help structure laws around drinking.
There are several subcategories to beer, wine, and liquor, and these subcategories help to define and regulate the production of specific beverages. Understanding the specifics of alcohol types and content helps manufacturers, retail salespeople, bartenders, and consumers determine how much alcohol is in one serving, and therefore how much is consumed.
The type of alcohol consumed in alcoholic beverages is ethanol, typically produced by yeast during the fermentation process. While there are other types of alcohol – such as isopropyl or butyl alcohol – these are not safe for human consumption.
The amount of alcohol found in beer, wine, and spirits can vary a little based on how high the proof is, which is measured in the U.S. with alcohol by volume (ABV) percentages. Proof for alcohol is generally twice the percentage of alcohol listed. Serving sizes have been standardized for legal reasons to contain roughly 0.6 ounces of alcohol per serving.
Serving measurements include:
Mixed drinks, cocktails, wine coolers, punch, and other types of combined alcoholic beverages are measured in legal terms using the above servings, although servers themselves may not be as careful about pouring.
For brewing purposes, beer is generally between 3 percent and 7 percent ABV; wine ranges between 9 percent and 14 percent ABV, unless it is fortified; and spirits begin at around 20 percent ABV, but some states allow up to 95 percent ABV.
Although the broad legal categories for alcohol are beer, wine, and spirits, there are many subcategories, and the ABV of each can vary. A few examples of types of alcohol, along with their ABV, are listed below.
It is important for alcohol percentages to be understood by those who sell and consume alcohol. Problem drinking, a broad category that includes alcohol use disorders, is a major problem in the United States.
The term alcohol use disorder has replaced the term alcoholism, reflecting how the medical and psychological understanding of addiction is changing. People who have problems related to alcohol may feel helpless or unable to stop drinking when they attempt to. They may also experience problems involving alcohol on a regular basis, such as injuries, social difficulty, being late to work, or feeling the need to drink in order to relax.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six American adults binge drinks about four times per month; binge drinking is defined as consuming more than five or more alcoholic beverages in two hours for men and four or more for women. While binge drinking can quickly lead to alcohol poisoning, hospitalization, car accidents, and other injuries, other types of problem drinking include heavy drinking, which is 15 alcoholic beverages for men and 8 alcoholic beverages for women per week. To avoid problematic drinking, the average adult who is at least 21 years old in the United States, is recommended to drink no more than seven drinks per week, per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
According to NIAAA, in 2012, about 7.2 percent of American adults (17 million individuals) reported struggling with alcohol use disorder. This serious condition can lead to both short-term and long-term health problems, including memory loss, financial instability, reduced quality of life, worsening mental health, liver damage, cancer, alcohol poisoning, and death.
It is important to get help as soon as possible, and the best way to do that is to safely detox with medical supervision and enter a rehabilitation program. A physician may help ease withdrawal with small doses of prescription medications, while therapy at a rehabilitation program will help to rebuild family relationships, understand the root causes of addiction, and develop better coping mechanisms for stress. If a person struggling with alcohol use disorder has a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, that led to the substance abuse problem, treatment for all co-occurring disorders is required.
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