Alcohol and drugs - substance misuse


Studies have shown that the use of illegal drugs is on the increase, that the consumption of alcohol among women is rising and that men are drinking at the same high levels they have for the past few years. All of these situations are arising despite numerous national initiatives to reduce alcohol consumption.

There are almost as many health problems caused by alcohol as there are associated with drug use. The main difference is that alcohol is legal and freely available and the vast majority of the population takes advantage of its availability.


Alcohol depresses certain brain functions - those affecting judgement, self control and co-ordination - and so has an impact upon a person's ability to drive or operate machinery.

The liver can only burn up one unit of alcohol per hour. If it has to deal with too much alcohol over a number of years, it suffers damage, becoming inflamed (hepatitis) or permanently scarred (cirrhosis).

Alcohol misuse can also lead to a number of other physical and mental problems including stomach disorders, depression, high blood pressure and even cancer.


Dependence on drugs - whether they are illegal, prescribed or over-the-counter - does not always cause difficulties for the user, although regular abuse can lead to other problems such as health, relationship and financial issues.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 makes extensive provision for the control of certain drugs in order to prevent their misuse and deal with the connected social problems.

Alcohol & drugs and the law


In addition to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, other pieces of legislation make direct reference to alcohol and/or drugs such as the Transport and Works Act 1992, the Road Traffic Act 1988 and the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974. It is possible that, in certain circumstances, charges may be brought against the employer or an employee under either or both the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 or the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974.

It would be up to the courts to decide on the circumstances of each case. Employers have a duty of care to their employees under both employment and health and safety law. Investing in employees' health and welfare helps to ensure an effective and efficient workforce.

Issues surrounding substance misuse

  • Substance misusers can be a hazard to themselves and others
  • The lifestyle imposed by a person's job may increase the risk of alcohol or drug abuse
  • Stress may be a contributory factor
  • If the problem is ignored, the person’s job will eventually be at risk

The benefits of a workplace policy

Many of the issues involved are common to both drug and alcohol misuse and a workplace policy can combine the two. It must be noted that the consumption of alcohol is legal in our society but the use of certain drugs is illegal. Health education should be at the core of workplace policy which should enable employees and employers to:

  • Recognise alcohol and drug misuse as a health problem
  • Prevent drug/alcohol misuse through awareness programmes
  • Identify employees/employers with a problem at an early stage
  • Provide assistance to employees/employers with drug and/or alcohol-related problems

Possible signs of alcohol and drug misuse

Reduced work performance characteristics

  • Confusion
  • Lack of judgement
  • Impaired memory
  • Difficulty in concentrating on work
  • Periods of high and low productivity

Absenteeism and time-keeping

  • Poor time-keeping
  • Increased absence
  • Peculiar and improbable excuses

Personality changes

  • Sudden mood swings
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Over-reaction to criticism
  • Friction with colleagues

Physical signs

  • Smelling of alcohol
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unkempt appearance
  • Lack of hygiene

Feeding addiction

  • Attempting to borrow money
  • Dishonesty

Help and information


  • Information about dealing with drugs and alcohol in the workplace, guidance on developing a workplace policy and a database of services in England and Wales
  • Call 020 7928 1211 or visit

National Drugs Helpline

  • A free, confidential, 24-hour service: 0800 776600

Alcoholics Anonymous

  • Head office: 0904 644026
  • London: 020 7352 3001
  • Wales: 0222 373939
  • Northern Ireland: 0232 681084
  • Scotland: 0141 221 9027

Alcohol Concern

  • London: 020 7928 7377
  • Wales: 029 2022 6746

Al Anon family groups

  • For the family and friends of problem drinkers: 020 7403 0888