Veterans Administrator Max Cleland said yesterday he plans to expand the VA alcoholism treatment program to fight what he called "the No. 1 drug problem in this society."

He said he has not decided how many new alcholic treatment centers he will ask for in his next budget but he wants to step up the research.

Already, Cleland said, the VA is treating 100,000 alcoholics a year compared to 25,000 for drug abuse.

Cleland spoke at a briefing on the agency's alcoholic treatment program.

Asked if the high treatment totals in VA hospitals has to do with military life, Cleland said:

"My own gut feeling is that it has to do with the society as a whole, but I'm not sure until all the facts are in."

Cleland and Dr. Steward L. Baker, director of the VA alcohol dependency treatment program, noted that before 1965 alcoholism was not treated as a disease in VA hopsitals.

The VA said its 1973 census found that almost 25 per cent of hospitalized Vietnam-era veterans were diagnosed as alcoholics or problem drinkers, compared to 13 per cent in a 1960 census.

Vietnam-era veterans in the VA hospital census has increased from 8 per cent to almost 12 per cent during the period.

Baker said about 100,000 more drinkers become alcoholics each year and the average stay in VA hospitals is 26 days.