1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Drunkenness

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DRUNKENNESS, a term signifying generally a state resulting from excessive drinking, and usually associated with alcoholic intoxication, or alcohol poisoning. It may represent either an act or a habit, the latter consisting in frequent repetitions of the former. As an act it may be an accident, most usually arising from the incautious use of one or other of the commonly employed intoxicating agents; as a habit (as in the form of chronic alcoholism) it is one of the most degrading forms of vice which can result from the enfeeblement of the moral principle by persistent self-indulgence.

What appears to be “intoxication” may arise from many different causes (e.g. epilepsy, fractured skull, intracranial haemorrhage, and the toxaemic coma of diabetes and uraemia), and the close resemblance between the pathological and the toxic phenomena has been the cause of many untoward accidents. Cold alone may produce such peculiar effects that Captain Parry said in his Journal, “I cannot help thinking that many a man may have been punished for intoxication who was only suffering from the benumbing effects of frost; for I have more than once seen our people in a state so exactly resembling that of the most stupid intoxication, that I should certainly have charged them with the offence had I not been quite sure that no possible means were afforded them on Melville Island to procure anything stronger than snow water.” The same confusion is frequently found in cases which come before the police-courts, people being arrested as “drunk and disorderly” who can prove that the symptoms were not due to over-indulgence in drink at all. Some individuals have, moreover, a special idiosyncrasy or susceptibility to alcohol, due to heredity or to one of the sequelae of sunstroke or cranial injury. The children of drunkards are usually very susceptible to the poison, becoming intoxicated by a far smaller quantity than is needed by a normal person.

But, as a rule, the phenomena of drunkenness are actually due to excessive consumption of some intoxicating liquid. The physiological action of all such agents may be described as a cumulative production of paralysis of various parts of the nervous system, but this effect results only in doses of a certain amount—a dose which varies with the agent, the race and the individual. Even the cup so often said to “cheer, but not inebriate,” cannot be regarded as altogether free from the last-named effect. Tea-sots are well known to be affected with palpitation and irregularity of the heart, as well as with more or less sleeplessness, mental irritability and muscular tremors, which in some culminate in paralysis; while positive intoxication has been known to be the result of the excessive use of strong tea. In short, from tea to haschisch we have, through hops, alcohol, tobacco and opium, a sort of graduated scale of intoxicants, which stimulate in small doses and narcotize in larger,—the narcotic dose having no stimulating properties whatever, and only appearing to possess them from the fact that the agent can only be gradually taken up by the blood, and the system thus comes primarily under the influence of a stimulant dose. In certain circumstances and with certain agents—as in the production of chloroform narcosis—this precursory stage is capable of being much abbreviated, if not altogether annihilated; while with other agents—as tea—the narcotic stage is by no means always or readily produced.

No subject in modern times has led to more extreme opinions than this of indulgence in “intoxicants” to any degree whatever. It is well to remember that (in spite of apparently authoritative modern views to the contrary) there is not a shadow of proof that the moderate use of any one of these agents as a stimulant has any definite tendency to lead to its abuse; it is otherwise with their employment as narcotics, which, once indulged in, is almost certain to lead to repetition, and to a more or less rapid process of degradation, though there are many exceptions to this latter statement. It is interesting to know that a former English judge, who lived to nearly ninety years of age, believed he had prolonged his life and added greatly to his comfort by the moderate use of ether, which he was led to employ because neither wine nor tobacco agreed with him; while the immoderate use of the same agent has given rise to a most deleterious form of drunkenness, both in parts of Ireland and in some of the large industrial centres in Great Britain.

Various modern biologists have discussed, with more or less acceptance in certain circles, the historical conditions in various races and in different countries as to the use and abuse of intoxicants, and have drawn varying conclusions from their theories. It has even been contended, with much show of learned authority, that since drunkenness leads to disease and early death, the proneness to strong drink in the long run causes the elimination of the unfit, and results in a general sobering of the community, a race being therefore temperate in proportion to its past sufferings through alcohol. But on this subject it may be said that, at least, no agreement has been reached.

The effects of intoxicants are variously modified by the temperament of the individual and the nature of the inebriant. When that is alcohol, its action on an average individual is first to fill him with a serene and perfect self-complacency. His feelings and faculties are exalted into a state of great activity and buoyancy, so that his language becomes enthusiastic, and his conversation vivacious if not brilliant. The senses gradually become hazy, a soft humming seems to fill the pauses of the conversation, and modify the tones of the speaker, a filmy haze obscures the vision, the head seems lighter than usual, the equilibrium unstable. By-and-by objects appear double, or flit confusedly before the eyes; judgment is abolished, secretiveness annihilated, and the drunkard pours forth all that is within him with unrestrained communicativeness; he becomes boisterous, ridiculous, and sinks at length into a mere animal. Every one around him, the very houses, trees, even the earth itself, seem drunken and unstable, he alone sober, till at last the final stage is reached, and he falls on the ground insensible—dead drunk (alcoholic coma)—a state from which, after profound slumber, he at last awakes feverish, exhausted, sick and giddy, with ringing ears, a throbbing heart and a violent headache.

The poison primarily affects the cerebral lobes, and the other parts of the cerebro-spinal system are consecutively involved, till in the state of dead-drunkenness the only parts not invaded by a benumbing paralysis are those automatic centres in the medulla oblongata which regulate and maintain the circulation and respiration. But even these centres are not unaffected; the paralysis of these as of the other sections of the cerebro-spinal system varies in its incompleteness, and at times becomes complete, the coma of drunkenness terminating in death. More usually the intoxicant is gradually eliminated, and the individual restored to consciousness, a consciousness disturbed by the secondary results of the agent he has abused, which vary with the nature of that agent. Whether, however, directly or indirectly through the nervous system, the stomach suffers in every case; thus nutrition is interfered with by the defective ingestion of food, as well as by the mal-assimilation of that which is ingested; and from this cause, as well as by the peculiar local action of the various poisons, the various organic degenerations are induced (cirrhosis of the liver, &c.) which in most cases shorten the drunkard’s days.

The primary discomforts of an act of drunkenness are readily removed for the time by a repetition of the cause. Thus what has been an act may readily become a habit, all the more readily that each repetition more and more enfeebles both the will and the judgment, till they become utterly unfit to resist the temptation to indulgence supplied by the knowledge of the temporary relief to suffering which is sure to follow, and in spite of the consciousness that each repetition of the act only forges their chains more tightly. From this condition there is no hope of relief but in enforced abstinence; any one in this condition must be regarded as temporarily insane (see Insanity and Neuropathology), and ought to be placed in an inebriate asylum till he regain sufficient self-control to enable him to overcome his love for drink. Numerous “cures” have been started in recent years, which have often succeeded in individual cases. An anti-alcoholic serum obtained from alcoholized horses has been advocated by Dr Sapelier.

For the law concerning drunkenness the reader is referred to Inebriety, Law of. Its prevalence as a vice has varied considerably according to the state of education or comfort in different classes of society. In considering the extent to which intemperance has prevailed, the statistics of prosecutions upon which such comparisons are usually based are far from being completely satisfactory, but, inasmuch as they constitute the only possible data for such comparisons, we are compelled to accept them. The following table gives the average number of persons per 1000 of the population proceeded against for drunkenness in England and Wales for quinquennial periods, dating from 1857, the first year of the Judicial Statistics:—

1857–1861 4.28
1862–1866 4.78
1867–1871 5.47
1872–1876 7.83
1877–1881 7.25
1882–1886 6.90
1887–1891 6.19
1892–1896 5.84
1897–1901 6.42
1902–1906 6.51
The figures, it will be seen, show a steady decline from 1872–1876 (when the consumption of alcohol was quite abnormal) to 1892–1896. After that year, however, the figures again rose. The increase was especially marked in 1899, when a tide of exceptional prosperity was again accompanied by great drunkenness. It is also disquieting to discover that the average number of prosecutions for drunkenness in the three years 1897–1899 was 51% higher than the average for 1857–1861, and 35% higher than the average for 1862–1866. That the increase was partly due to more efficient police administration is probable, but that this is not a complete explanation of the figures is made evident by an analysis of the general statistics of crime during the same period, from which it may be seen that, while crime generally (excluding drunkenness) decreased 28% in England and Wales since 1857–1861, drunkenness increased 51%. Speaking generally, it may be said that in the United Kingdom drunkenness appears chiefly prevalent in the seaport and mining districts. If a line be drawn from the mouth of the Severn to the Wash, it will be found that the “black” counties, without exception, lie to the north-west of this line. The worst counties in England and Wales in the matter of drunkenness are Northumberland, Durham and Glamorganshire, while Pembrokeshire and Lancashire follow close behind. The most sober counties, on the other hand, are Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. Averages based upon the returns of entire counties do not, however, afford a complete guide to the distribution of drunkenness, inasmuch as offences are not equally distributed over the whole area of a county. A heavy ratio of drunkenness in a small district may often give a county an unfavourable position in the general averages, notwithstanding favourable conditions in the rest of its area.

Analysis of the prosecutions for drunkenness shows that about 24% of the total number of offences are committed by women. In the larger towns the proportion, as a rule, is higher. In London, 38% of the drunkenness is attributable to women; in Manchester, 36%; in Belfast and Glasgow, 32%. In Liverpool, on the other hand, the proportion is only 24%. The much-controverted question as to whether intemperance is increasing among women can hardly, however, be decided by an appeal to the criminal statistics. So far as these statistics throw any light at all upon the question, they suggest important local differences. A more direct clue is afforded by the registrar-general’s annual returns of deaths directly attributed to intemperance. The figures are given below. In order to eliminate accidental variations, the comparison is based upon the average mortality during consecutive periods:—

Years. Average No. of deaths
(England and Wales).
per cent.
per cent.
 1877–1881  1071 69 31
 1882–1886 1320 66 34
 1887–1891 1710 64 36
 1892–1896 2044 61 39
 1897–1899 2577 61 39
 1899 2871 60 40

For the ten years ending 1904, out of 26,426 deaths from alcoholism, 59.34% were males and 40.66% females.

The figures are certainly striking. They show, it will be noticed, that out of every 100 deaths from alcoholic excess in England and Wales women contributed nine more at the end of the century then they did in 1880. If, instead of taking the total number of deaths, we take the ratio per million persons living, the increase is seen even more clearly:—

Years. Males per
million living.
Females per
million living.
 1877–1881   60 25
 1882–1886  67 32
 1887–1891  79 42
 1892–1896  86 51
 1897–1899 103 63
 1899 112 70

It appears that, while the ratio of mortality from alcoholic excess increased 87% among males during the last two decades of the century, among females it increased by no less than 180%.

See also Liquor Laws and Temperance.