Drugs: Alcohol & Tobacco

Alcohol | Tobacco


As a student at Taft College, your life extends beyond the classroom. Learning to make healthy decisions, including whether or not to use substances like alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and marijuana is just one of the challenges you will face.

These pages are written with the following principles in mind:

  1. There are risks involved with any drug use, including alcohol. Most people who choose to experiment with drugs realize there are health risks involved, but they often don't know what all of those risks are. Many people don't realize that a person's blood alcohol concentration can increase for several hours after drinking, putting them at risk for alcohol poisoning.
  2. Alcohol and other drug use increases the risk of being injured, experiencing unwanted sexual activity, and having academic problems. There are also legal and disciplinary consequences for underage drinking and illegal drug use.
  3. You can make safer choices with more accurate information. If you choose to use drugs or alcohol, you can make safer choices. The information provided on this site can help with that decision-making process.
  4. Respect the rights of people who do not use alcohol or drugs. Many students on campus do not drink alcohol or use other drugs. People abstain for many reasons, including religious beliefs, personal experiences, family history and legal consequences

Drinking in college is not a given. It doesn't have to be a rite of passage. The stereotype of heavy drinking in college is not reality for most students. Understanding what alcohol does to your body and the risks associated with alcohol use can help you in many ways:

I. Alcohol: The Basics

What kind of substance is alcohol?

Alcohol is classified as a depressant because it slows down the central nervous system, causing a decrease in motor coordination, reaction time and intellectual performance. At high doses, the respiratory system slows down drastically and can cause a coma or death.

It is particularly dangerous to mix alcohol with other depressants, such as GHB, Rohypnol, Ketamine, tranquilizers or sleeping pills. Combining depressants multiplies the effects of both drugs and can lead to memory loss, coma or death.

How does alcohol move through the body?

Once swallowed, a drink enters the stomach and small intestine, where small blood vessels carry it to the bloodstream. Approximately 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and most of the remaining 80% is absorbed through the small intestine.

Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, where enzymes break down the alcohol. Understanding the rate of metabolism is critical to understanding the effects of alcohol. In general, the liver can process one ounce of liquor (or one standard drink) in one hour. If you consume more than this, your system becomes saturated, and the additional alcohol will accumulate in the blood and body tissues until it can be metabolized. This is why pounding shots or playing drinking games can result in high blood alcohol concentrations that last for several hours.

What is "one drink"?

Knowing how to count a standard drink is necessary for calculating blood alcohol concentrations*. Too often, people underestimate how much they have had to drink because they aren't using standard measurements.

One drink = one 12-ounce beer. This is normal-strength beer (4% alcohol). Micro-brews and malt liquor have a higher percentage of alcohol (look at the label).
One drink = 1.5 ounces of liquor (40% alcohol or 80 proof). This is how much whiskey, vodka, gin, etc. is in a measured mixed drink or in a "shot."
One drink = 5 ounces of standard wine -- this is most table wines: white, red, ros, champagne.
One drink = 3 ounces of fortified wine -- this is wine with more than 13% alcohol content, such as brandy, cognac or sherry.

REMEMBER: mixed drinks may not be measured and often contain far more than 1.5 ounces of alcohol. Drinks with a higher proof (like grain alcohol, Everclear, or 151 proof rum) should also be treated with caution.

* In California, if you are over 21 the legal BAC limit for driving is .08. Even though driving with a BAC of .05 is technically legal, your risk of having an accident increases by 100%. If you are under 21 the BAC limit is .02 -- that's less than 1 drink for women under 250 lbs. or for men under 225 lbs.

DWI penalties in California include fines, license suspension, community service, alcohol education classes and/or treatment.

Are there long-term risks to drinking? There is some evidence that moderate drinking (1 to 2 drinks a day) may be good for the cardio-vascular system. However, any positive effects disappear at higher levels of drinking.

What is tolerance? Tolerance refers to a reduction in the effects of alcohol (or other drugs) over the course of repeated use. So, someone developing tolerance to alcohol must drink more to feel the same effect that had been achieved with fewer drinks.

Tolerance can be a warning sign for alcoholism. If a person can drink large amounts of alcohol and not feel the effects, you are at risk for becoming dependent on alcohol. If you don't feel those effects until much higher amounts of alcohol, you are developing tolerance. The body's organs do not develop tolerance. They are damaged by the alcohol no matter how well a person can function. Tolerance does not protect you from lethal amounts of alcohol. Although someone feels that he can "hold his liquor," he is still at risk for alcohol poisoning.

Tolerance is a complex physiological process, and the research literature defines several different types of tolerance, including acute tolerance, environment-dependent tolerance and learned tolerance. For an in-depth discussion, go to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism and search the site for research on tolerance.

Why are men and women different?

Because of several physiological reasons, a woman will feel the effects of alcohol more than a man, even if they are the same size. There is also increasing evidence that women are more susceptible to alcohol's damaging effects than are men. Below are explanations of why men and women process alcohol differently. Women have less body water (52% for the average woman v. 61% for the average man). This means that a man's body will automatically dilute the alcohol more than a woman's body, even if the two people weigh the same amount. Women have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol, than men. So a woman's body will break down alcohol more slowly than a man's. Premenstrual hormonal changes cause intoxication to set in faster during the days right before a woman gets her period. Birth control pills or other medication with estrogen will slow down the rate at which alcohol is eliminated from the body. Women are more susceptible to long-term alcohol-induced damage. Women who are heavy drinkers are at greater risk of liver disease, damage to the pancreas and high blood pressure than male heavy drinkers. Proportionately more alcoholic women die from cirrhosis than do alcoholic men.

What other factors affect your response to alcohol?


Having food in your stomach can have a powerful influence on the absorption of alcohol. The food will dilute the alcohol and slow the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine, where alcohol is very rapidly absorbed. Peak BAC could be as much as 3 times higher in someone with an empty stomach than in someone who has eaten a meal before drinking. Eating regular meals and having snacks while drinking will keep you from getting too drunk too quickly.

Asian descent

Some people of Asian descent have more difficulty metabolizing alcohol. They may experience facial flushing, nausea, headache, dizziness and rapid heartbeat. It appears that one of the liver enzymes that is needed to process alcohol is not active in these individuals. It is estimated that up to 50% of Asians are susceptible to these reactions to alcohol.

Family History

First-degree relatives (children, siblings or parents) of alcoholics have been estimated to have a seven times greater chance of developing alcoholism. The male relatives of male alcoholics are at particularly high risk, with the expectancy of becoming an alcoholic ranging from 20% to 50%. It appears that this risk factor is not just genetic; growing up with an alcoholic parent contributes to a person's drinking behavior.

What is the difference between a blackout and passing out?

"Blackouts"  occur when people have no memory of what happened while intoxicated. These periods may last from a few hours to several days. During a blackout, someone may appear fine to others; however, the next day s/he cannot remember parts of the night and what s/he did. The cause of blackouts is not well understood but may involve the interference of short-term memory storage, deep seizures, or in some cases, psychological depression.

Blackouts shouldn't be confused with "passing out," which happens when people lose consciousness from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Losing consciousness means that the person has reached a very dangerous level of intoxication; they could slip into a coma and die. If someone has passed out, S/he needs immediate medical attention.

Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when someone drinks to the point that their blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches dangerous levels and causes the central nervous system to slow down. Breathing and heart rate become slower and slower, and the person can lose consciousness, slip into a coma and die. If someone is unconscious and begins vomiting, they could choke to death on their own vomit. The severe dehydration of alcohol poisoning can cause seizures or permanent brain damage. Alcohol poisoning is most likely to happen when someone drinks a large amount of alcohol very quickly. Because the liver can only process roughly 1 drink per hour, a person's BAC can continue to rise for several hours.

What are the effects of blood alcohol content on thinking, feeling and behavior?

0.02 - 0.03 Legal definition of intoxication in CA for people under 21 years of age. Few obvious effects; slight intensification of mood.
0.05 - 0.06 Feeling of warmth, relaxation, mild sedation; exaggeration of emotion and behavior; slight decrease in reaction time and in fine-muscle coordination; impaired judgment about continued drinking.
0.07 - 0.09 More noticeable speech impairment and disturbance of balance; impaired motor coordination, hearing and vision; feeling of elation or depression; increased confidence; may not recognize impairment.
0.08 Legal definition of intoxication in CA. for people 21 years and older.
0.11 - 0.12 Coordination and balance becoming difficult; distinct impairment of mental faculties and judgment.
0.14 - 0.15 Major impairment of mental and physical control; slurred speech, blurred vision and lack of motor skills; needs medical evaluation.
0.20 Loss of motor control; must have assistance moving about; mental confusion; needs medical assistance.
0.30 Severe intoxication; minimum conscious control of mind and body; needs hospitalization.
0.30 - 0.60 This level of alcohol has been measured in people who have died of alcohol intoxication.
0.40 Unconsciousness; coma; needs hospitalization.

What is a hangover and can I prevent it?

Hangovers are the body's reaction to poisoning and withdrawal from alcohol. Hangovers begin 8 to 12 hours after the last drink and symptoms include fatigue, depression, headache, thirst, nausea, and vomiting. The severity of symptoms varies according to the individual and the quantity of alcohol consumed.

People have tried many different things to relieve the effects of "the morning after," and there are a lot of myths about what to do to prevent or alleviate a hangover. The only way to prevent a hangover is to drink in moderation:

Here are some of the things that WON'T help a hangover:

Here are some things that MIGHT help a hangover:

Is it dangerous to mix alcohol and other drugs?

Alcohol can be dangerous when mixed with other recreational drugs or medications. Below are some of the reactions that might take place after mixing alcohol with different types of drugs:


Using alcohol with GHB, Rohypnol, Ketamine, barbiturates, tranquilizers or sleeping pills will multiply the sedative effects of both drugs, which can slow down your central nervous system enough to cause loss of consciousness, a coma or death. Sedatives like GHB and Rohypnol have been used as date rape drugs because of this dangerous combination.


Using alcohol with marijuana can decrease motor control and mental concentration and greatly impair your ability to drive. Because marijuana suppresses the gag reflex, you may not be able to throw up alcohol when your body needs to.


Using alcohol with narcotics such as heroin, codeine or Darvon slows down the central nervous system and can cause your breathing to stop, a coma and even death.

Prescription Drugs

More than 150 medications interact harmfully with alcohol. Alcohol's effects are heightened by medicines that depress the central nervous system, such as sleeping pills, antihistamines, antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and some painkillers. In addition, medicines for certain disorders, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, can have harmful interactions with alcohol. Using alcohol with a prescribed drug or an over-the-counter drug may effect your liver's ability to metabolize the medication and can decrease the medication's effectiveness. The combination of drugs can also multiply the effects of the alcohol and the medication and may cause liver damage. Call your pharmacist to ask about using alcohol with any prescribed drug or over-the-counter drugs.

Recognizing a Problem with Alcohol

If you are concerned about yourself, read the following statements and keep track of how many times they apply to you.

Drinking Patterns

After Drinking


Drinking and Emotions

Family and Friends

You've tried to change

If you answered yes to 4 of the above, you may have a problem with alcohol or have the potential to develop one. Examine your habits honestly. Patterns of heavy drinking in college could lead to a more serious problem down the road. You can reduce your drinking with some of the ideas listed in Ways to Cut Down.

If you answered yes to 5 or more of these statements, there's a strong chance that you frequently misuse and abuse alcohol. NOW is the time for you to change your drinking patterns and behaviors. The habits you develop in college can continue and worsen throughout your life.

Ways to Cut Down

Do I need to cut down? I Do's and Don'ts for cutting down I How to hang out with drinkers when you're not I Links you can use

How do I know if I should cut down? If you think you might be drinking too much, it's a good idea to take a look at your drinking patterns. Most students only need to reduce their drinking to safer levels; however, some people have more serious problems. Ask yourself the following questions:

Do's and Don'ts for Cutting Down Do formulate a mission statement. Why is it you want to cut down or stop your drinking? Whether it's to help you lose weight, to feel healthier in general or to stop getting into fights with your family, write down your reasons. Put the list someplace where you will be reminded, like your refrigerator or your wallet. It'll make you take the challenge more seriously.

Drinking & Alcohol: Overview of Issue

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Effects of Alcohol and Drug Abuse
College Alcohol Inventory
National Youth Resource Center Alcohol on Campus

Binge Drinking

UCI Health Education ~ Avoid Or Stop Binge Drinking
About Binge Drinking
Binge Drinking Affects Brain, Memory
Binge Drinking in Adolescents and College Students

Student Athletes Drug and Alcohol Issues and Information

For Student Athletes: Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Prevention Programs /Vanderbilt
American College of Sports Medicine
Choices In Sports- NCAA Drugs in Sports
Higher Education Center: Info facts Resources: College Athletes and Alcohol and Other Drugs

Substance Abuse Resources

How Much Is Too Much? Alcohol Screening.org
California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs
American Medical Association: Alcohol & Drug Abuse

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