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BC’s Responsible Beverage Service Program

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Alcohol Effects


Intoxication Part One


1. What is intoxication?

As a result of consuming alcohol, an intoxicated person does not have the normal use of physical or mental faculties. There is no single scientific measure that determines whether a person is intoxicated, since intoxication is an observed state. Therefore, determining whether a person is intoxicated requires observing a person’s mental and physical state, and comparing that state and observed behaviour to a normal person in full possession of his or her faculties.

2. How intoxication happens

As the alcohol reaches the stomach, some of it is absorbed and promptly enters the bloodstream. However, most of it passes on into the small intestine, where it is absorbed and also enters the bloodstream. Approximately 90% of the alcohol leaves the body after being processed by the liver. This organ is able to process alcohol at a relatively fixed rate of one standard drink per hour. A person's intoxication is increased when alcohol is being absorbed at a faster rate than it is being processed.

3. Effects of intoxication

As alcohol builds up in the body, the activity of the brain, heart and lungs may slow down. Alcohol can be absorbed, enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain in as little as three minutes. Early effects of alcohol consumption include impaired judgment, loss of self-control and lessening of inhibitions. As more alcohol reaches the brain, the person’s physical abilities become significantly impaired, and coordination is lost.

By law, no one in BC is allowed to sell or serve alcohol to a person who is intoxicated or apparently intoxicated. The term “apparently intoxicated” places a great deal of responsibility on you to judge when a person is approaching intoxication or is already intoxicated.

Common myths about alcohol

There are many myths regarding alcohol and alcohol consumption. Knowing the truth may help you understand customer behaviour.

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Myth 1:  Alcohol makes you happy

Alcohol is actually a depressant. When a person consumes moderate amounts of alcohol slowly, the alcohol produces a mild "up" feeling-or a "good buzz." This "up" feeling is followed by a "down" feeling if you drink too much. There is a point when drinking more alcohol leads to more negative feelings - like fatigue and nausea. How you will feel also depends on your mood when you start drinking. If you are sad or angry before you drink, the alcohol may initially put you in a better mood. But then the opposite can occur, and you may well end up even sadder or angrier than you were before you started.

Myth 2:  Mixing drinks causes higher levels of intoxication

Mixing drinks does not cause greater intoxication. It does increase your chances of a hangover, though, and may make you feel sick.

Myth 3:  Alcohol warms the body

The opposite is true. Alcohol opens up the pores of the skin, allowing perspiration to increase, which lowers body temperature and cools the body.

Myth 4:  Alcohol relieves stress

Alcohol may seem to relieve stress in the short term; however, it does not treat the underlying cause of stress. Indeed, the use of alcohol can lead to increased anxiety, which in turn may lead to the use of alcohol as self-medication and potential alcohol dependency. 

Myth 5:  Alcohol improves coordination

Some people will try to tell you they are better at darts after a few drinks. In fact, the motor functions that control coordination are affected by alcohol immediately.

Myth 6:  Alcohol helps you sleep

Alcohol can help you fall asleep, but once the alcohol levels are reduced by the passage of time, normal sleeping patterns are disrupted. This is why heavy drinkers feel tired in the morning. Alcohol can also cause insomnia and aggravate existing sleep problems.

Myth 7:  Drinking coffee will sober you up

There is only one way to sober up: time. Cold showers, drinking coffee and dancing will not sober an intoxicated person up faster.

Factors that influence intoxication

When drinking, each person will be affected differently. Many factors may influence how quickly alcohol affects a patron.

1. Rate of consumption

Increasing the number of drinks consumed in a given time period will greatly influence the rate of intoxication.

2. Amount consumed

“Doubles” and drinks made with more than one type of liquor typically contain more alcohol than standard drinks (a five-ounce glass of wine, or a 12-ounce glass of beer).

3. Age

Young and healthy people break down alcohol faster than the elderly and people in poor health. Younger patrons have more blood in their system, and their livers process alcohol more efficiently.

4. Gender

Women generally have more body fat than men and less body water with which to dilute alcohol. Women also have lower levels of the metabolizing enzyme required to break down alcohol.

5. Body weight and type

An overweight person generally becomes intoxicated faster than a muscular person who weighs the same and drinks the same amount of alcohol. Fatty tissue contains less water than muscle, so overweight bodies are less capable of diluting alcohol.

6. Food consumption

Food slows the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. On an empty stomach, alcohol reaches the brain in a few minutes and begins to affect behaviour and coordination. After a full meal, alcohol can take up to six hours to reach the brain. Food does not absorb the alcohol. It merely slows the speed at which alcohol is absorbed. Fatty foods are especially effective in slowing down the alcohol-absorption process. As fatty foods are more difficult to digest, they remain in the stomach longer than other types of food. The effect of the alcohol still occurs, but at a slower rate.

7. Medication and other drugs

Many common drugs (prescription medications, over-the-counter medications and illegal drugs) impair the user and increase the effects of alcohol. Using alcohol with other drugs can be very dangerous to a person’s health and safety.

8. Environment and mood

Many factors including the lighting, décor, music, and seating pattern may affect a guest's behaviour and consumption of alcohol. The surroundings, including interaction with other guests, may trigger emotional responses. Alcohol usually exaggerates moods. A person who is depressed or upset will likely become more depressed and upset when drinking.

9. Fatigue and stress

Physical, mental or emotional fatigue and stress make a person more susceptible to the effects of alcohol.

10. Tolerance to alcohol

Experienced drinkers develop tolerance to alcohol. After prolonged regular drinking, the liver develops an ability to break down alcohol more rapidly, and brain cells may become less sensitive to alcohol. For a person who has developed a high tolerance to alcohol, it takes higher quantities of alcohol to show signs of visible intoxication. This has implications for responsible service because the person may not demonstrate typical signs of intoxication early on. This often results in an underestimation of intoxication because of alcohol's invisible impact.