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Alcohol and nicotine

Drugs change chemical processes in the body. People may become dependent on the drug or addicted to it, and may suffer withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking the drug.

Alcohol and nicotine (found in tobacco) are legal recreational drugs. However, misuse of them can cause health problems.


beer, wine, spirits

Alcoholic drinks

The alcohol in alcoholic drinks such as wines, beer and spirits is ethanol, which is a depressant, meaning that it slows down signals in the nerves and brain.

Small amounts of alcohol help people to relax, but greater amounts lead to a lack of self-control. Drinkers of alcohol may not realise how much they are consuming, and fall ill as a result. They may become unconscious, and may even fall into a coma.

Alcohol is addictive. Long-term effects of alcohol include damage to the liver and brain, and it is often the cause of weight gain. Women who are pregnant are warned not to drink alcohol or at least to limit their intake.


About 114,000 people die every year as a result of smoking-related illnesses. All cigarettes sold now carry a prominent health warning.

Nicotine is the addictive substance in tobacco smoke. It reaches the brain within 20 seconds and creates a dependency so that smokers become addicted. Smoking increases the risks of:

  • heart disease and strokes
  • miscarriage, premature birth and low birth weight
  • lung cancer, mouth cancer and throat cancer.
the lung is pink

A healthy lung

the lung is tinged yellow and has black tar deposits

A smoker's lung, with tar deposits visible

Back to The use and abuse of drugs index

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