Premieres December 19 at 8 pm

Risky Drinking

Risky Drinking Experts Say Alcohol Is the Worst Drug of All

At the New York premiere of Risky Drinking, the filmmakers and a panel of experts discussed the repercussions of heavy alcohol use as demonstrated in the documentary.


The film follows the struggles of four individuals with varying levels of alcohol use disorders, from weekend binge drinking to severe - and nearly fatal - alcohol dependency, and their journeys toward moderating their drinking habits. Impossible to ignore is the impact the disease has on their relationships and health, and through the context provided by medical and mental health professionals specializing in substance abuse, audiences grasp the heartbreaking effects of risky drinking.

Following the New York screening, filmmakers Perri Peltz and Ellen Goosenberg Kent moderated a panel discussion with four of the experts featured in the documentary: Deidra Roach, M.D., Division of Treatment and Recovery Research, National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA); Stephen Ross, M.D., Director, Addiction Psychiatry, NYU Langone Medical Center; George Koob, Ph.D., Director, NIAAA; and Carrie Wilkens, Ph.D., Co-Founder and Clinical Director, Center for Motivation and Change, NYC. Here are the highlights of the conversation.

“Alcohol is a bigger cost on society than all the rest of the drugs combined.” - George Koob, Ph.D.
When asked about his participation in the film, Dr. Koob stressed the importance of raising awareness of alcohol use disorders as a major public health crisis. People view heavy alcohol use in black and white terms -- it’s either a problem or it’s not -- but Dr. Koob emphasized all drinking falls on a spectrum. For Koob, recognizing it as a brain disorder will change how it is treated: “We’re hoping that if we accept it as a disorder, we treat it like diabetes or hypertension. We don’t treat somebody with a 28-day detox for hypertension and then turn them loose.”

“It’s the worst drug of all and it’s hidden in plain sight. - Stephen Ross, M.D.
Alcohol is an accepted drug in our society, stated Ross, one that “for whatever reason, is given a pass from a public health perspective.” Ross pointed out that Prohibition and the temperance movement went after alcohol about 100 years ago, but with the exception of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, there “has not been a public health campaign against alcohol in any way.” Ross posited that normalizing heavy alcohol use is the real problem: “You go to college and you think it’s the culture there to drink. When people think of alcohol, they don’t think of something bad.”

“People don’t drink because they’re crazy; they drink because it works in some way.” - Carrie Wilkens, Ph.D.
With some of the film’s subjects admitting to using alcohol as a means for coping with depression or letting go, Dr. Wilkens advocated addressing these issues in conjunction with treating the dependency. Taking stock of the full picture leads to a better chance of success: “This is where the system has failed so far,” she argued. “They just said ‘Let’s take the alcohol out. Just stop drinking.’ When it’s this massive, all parts of their lives need to be addressed.”

“We do have a large epidemiological study in the field now that is looking at rates of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and we’re hopeful, but the early evidence is concerning.” - Deidra Roach, M.D.
Previously perceived to be a male disorder, alcoholism is increasingly affecting women. Dr. Roach, an expert in women and alcohol spectrum disorders, observed that many psychological contributors are preventable. We can “address the shame they start learning, and look at those depressive symptoms and anxiety early on.” Roach asserted this approach would prevent girls from “drinking to eradicate those symptoms.”

Watch the full panel discussion on HBO Docs’ YouTube channel.