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Is Alcohol A Gateway Drug?

Is Alcohol A Gateway Drug?

Gateway drugs are believed to encourage further experimentation and use of other, more dangerous, addictive drugs.

For years, people have asked, “Is alcohol a gateway drug?” and the answer is never clear. Today, our Banyan rehab in Boca Raton is looking into the theory of gateway drugs and whether alcohol is used as a gateway drug among adolescents and teens.

Gateway Drugs and Addiction

Respiratory depression is a breathing disorder characterized by slow and shallow breathing. During a normal breathing cycle, you inhale oxygen into your lungs, which is carried throughout your body by your blood. Addiction is a complex disease that has many causes. Some of the contributing factors are genetic, while others are environmental.

Genetic factors refer to a genetic disposition to drug or alcohol addiction. For instance, children who have close family members with substance use disorders are at a higher rate of developing one themselves partly because of genetics.

On the other hand, environmental factors refer to things that people are exposed to and learn from. Some environmental factors of addiction include being raised with addicted parents or family members, education level, history of abuse or trauma, history of mental illness, and financial situation.Normally, breathing rates in people with respiratory depression slow down to 8 to 10 breaths per minute, a significant difference from the normal 12 to 16 breaths per minute. This can lead to poor use of oxygen by the lungs, as well as a build-up of carbon dioxide in the body, which can be dangerous.

Exposure to gateway drugs is also an environmental factor of substance abuse. However, like other causes, it’s not the only factor that determines whether a person will engage in substance abuse or develop an addiction. Rather, it’s just one of the many things that increases a person’s likelihood of using drugs or alcohol.

What Is a Gateway Drug?

A gateway drug is a habit-forming drug that, while not as addictive as other drugs, may encourage or contribute to the use of other more dangerous and addictive drugs. This term was the result of the gateway hypothesis, which states that adolescents who experiment with these kinds of substances are more likely to use addictive drugs later in life. Some examples of gateway drugs are nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana (cannabis).

Although the gateway theory has yet to be confirmed, recent studies and research support it. One point that stands out is the fact that the brain doesn’t finish developing until a person is in their mid-20s, meaning that adolescents and teens are highly susceptible to habit-forming drugs.

While peer pressure, stress, the need to fit in, and simple curiosity may all contribute to the gateway drug hypothesis, there’s also scientific evidence to back it up. One alcohol gateway drug study found that addictive drugs – especially alcohol – can cause abnormal inflammation in the brain, disrupting the connection between neurons. When these connections are severed, the brain may create new ones to cope, which contributes to addiction and other mental disorders.1

Alcohol Is a Gateway Drug: True or False?

True! But why is alcohol a gateway drug? Alcohol is considered a gateway drug because:

  • It increases the likelihood of using other addictive drugs, including other gateway drugs like marijuana and nicotine (tobacco).
  • Chronic drinking increases a person’s likelihood of developing an addiction, both to alcohol and possibly other substances of abuse.
  • Developed tolerance to alcohol makes it more difficult for the person to experience a high or “buzz,” encouraging them to begin using other potent drugs for that effect.

The gateway drug theory is also commonly applied to substance abuse among adolescents and teens. Generally, the cause of drug use among teens is complex, ranging from peer pressure to mental illness to a difficult home environment. Gateway drugs can also be considered a cause of drug use among teens, possibly acting as a catalyst for the use of more harmful and addictive substances.

Alcohol Is a Gateway Drug: Statistics to Consider

It’s important to keep in mind that the cause and effect of gateway drugs among adolescents and teens hasn’t been proven because certain experiments are simply unethical. The type of studies that can establish a cause and effect between teens and drug use are randomized controlled trials (RCTs). In these studies, participants would be given alcohol and placebos to see what happens. But this is unethical due to the necessary participants’ ages and therefore not an option. While RCT trials are performed on rats in an attempt to make sense of certain connections, rats don’t share the same genetic disposition as humans do, creating too many discrepancies.

As a result, observational studies are the only kind that researchers can rely on to determine some sort of correlation between teens and drug use and gateway drugs. However, these studies cannot determine a cause and effect relationship, but rather they simply serve as evidence to suggest something that is possibly true.

With that being said, there are enough observational studies to safely say that alcohol abuse is prevalent among adolescents and teens. For instance, the 2018 Monitoring the Future survey showed that 86% of 12th graders said that alcohol was easily accessible, and 30% of them had used alcohol at least once in the past month. The study also found that 59% of 12th graders used alcohol by the time they graduated from high school.2

Other studies have shown that the adolescent brain is more sensitive to alcohol, and therefore more susceptible to addiction.3 The adolescent brain is less sensitive to cues that tell them when to stop drinking, resulting in binge or heavy drinking. Their brains are also more susceptible to the feeling of reward and more sensitive to social cues for alcohol use, such as peer pressure or social drinking.


Regardless of a person’s age, long-term alcohol abuse can lead to addiction, facilitating the need for alcohol detox and treatment. Often those who engage in heavy drinking for years experience alcohol-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, liver disease, diabetes, and more.

Children who are exposed to drugs and alcohol at an early age are also more likely to engage in substance abuse when they’re older. Many patients at our rehab in Boca Raton, Florida, can attest to this fact. From marijuana or alcohol to cocaine, gateway drugs are real, and the problem can escalate before you know it.

If you or a loved one is battling drug or alcohol addiction, get help as soon as you can. Early detection and treatment can make a huge difference in a person’s recovery.

Take the first step today. Call Banyan Treatment Centers Boca at 888-280-4763 to learn more about our alcohol addiction treatment and other services offered at our facility.

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Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa is the National Director of Digital Marketing and is responsible for a multitude of integrated campaigns and events in the behavioral health and addictions field. All articles have been written by Alyssa and medically reviewed by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Darrin Mangiacarne.
Is Alcohol A Gateway Drug?
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