These terms are used to differentiate ‘normal’ alcohol use or ‘recreational alcohol use’ from ‘problem alcohol use’. These terms are contested. The distinction between these two behaviours can be very difficult to define. These are not fixed behaviours - an individual may drift between the two behaviours, no matter how they are defined (see recreational drug use).
The terms abuse and misuse and contested being regarded by some people as judgemental, moralistic and inaccurate.
The terms may be regarded as inaccurate or stigmatising as people drink to get intoxicated. Although some people claim they do not drink alcohol to become intoxicated, the fact is that few people would be able to drive legally after a drinking session. People can become intoxicated after a single drink. In becoming intoxicated, people are not using the product for a purpose other than the purpose for which it was manufactured and supplied so they are not abusing or misusing alcohol.
It could be argued that for someone with an alcohol dependency, alcohol use is necessary to prevent life-threatening withdrawal – in what way is this person’s use of alcohol ‘abuse’ or ‘misuse’?
The term may be regarded as derogatory or stigmatising to people with an alcohol-based substance problem as it promotes the idea that that kind of use is wholly distinct from other people’s use of the same substance.
In the field of public health, this term may be unhelpful as, for some health outcomes, no level of alcohol use can be regarded as wholly safe or unharmful as these terms imply.