Alcohol and other drugs

What about alcohol?

The use and sale of alcoholic products is regulated by a number of laws:

  • The Licensing Act 1964 governs where and under what conditions alcohol can be bought and consumed.
  • Under the Road Traffic Act 1988 it is forbidden to drive a vehicle under the influence of alcohol.
  • Other rules restrict the age at which it is legal to have alcohol. In the UK it is an offence to give it to a child who is under five years old. Before the age of 18, it is not allowed to buy alcohol in pubs or shops, drink alcohol in pubs or in public places. Young people over 14 can go into pubs as long as they are accompanied by someone who is of age, but they cannot be served alcohol until they are 18, unless they are 16 or over and are having beer or cider with their meal.
  • There are also laws controlling drunkenness in public places.
  • An ‘Alcohol Rehabilitation Requirement’ (introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 2003) can be imposed by the courts as part of a community sentence. For more information, see the 'Community Sentences for Adults' Factsheet.


What about legal drugs?

Prescriptions and over-the counter medications are widely marketed and easily available. Together with alcohol, tobacco and solvents, their use may lead to dependency and ill health.

Tobacco and alcohol-linked death rates are considerably higher than those caused by illegal drug misuse. Alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales increased from around 2,500 in 1979 to about 5,540 in 2000. Drug-related deaths went from about 860 in 1993 to about 1,620 in 2001.

Get in touch with Alcohol-related health problems

Alcohol and other drugs

Whilst some ‘drugs’ are legal, like medicines and alcohol, others are not. Which substances are made illegal depends on official perceptions of their harmfulness, which are in turn informed by social, cultural, political as well as medical judgements.

It is commonly assumed that drugs and alcohol misuse are linked to committing crimes (for example, alcohol use and violence). However, the relationship between drugs and criminal behaviour is more complex than it can appear at first. Whether drug use is linked to crime depends on a number of factors, including the type of drug used, the frequency of use and the user’s socio-economic status, which, for example, affects the capacity to support a habit without resorting to illegal means. Also, studies suggest that the link between drug taking and committing crimes to pay for it is overstated.

Is alcohol a drug?

Although alcohol is legally available (to people who are 18 or over) and is generally not considered to be a ‘drug’, its biological effects are similar to some (prohibited as well as legal) drugs: it acts as a depressant on the central nervous system and is classified as a ‘sedative-hypnotic’ substance. Avoiding alcohol can greatly help if you have health and fitness goals.

‘Alcohol-related crime’ refers to behaviour in which alcohol use is involved as a contributory factor to the unlawful activity. This can include street disorder, fights or lewd behaviour associated with drinking.

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