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WHO study finds alcohol use is the cause of 1 in 20 deaths worldwide

Shutterstock/Axel Bueckert
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More than three quarters of them are men.

A new study from the World Health Organization cites harmful alcohol use as the annual cause of 1 in 20 deaths globally. Data from 2016 found that 3 million people suffered alcohol-related deaths, the vast majority of these being men. It concluded that alcohol use causes more than 5% of the global disease burden.

The Global status report on alcohol and health 2018 found that of all the deaths attributed to alcohol consumption, 28% were from injuries sustained while intoxicated, whether accidental, self-inflicted, or interpersonal; 21% came from digestive disorders; 19% due to cardiovascular diseases, and the remainder were due to infectious diseases, cancers, mental disorders and other health conditions.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, commented:

“Far too many people, their families and communities suffer the consequences of the harmful use of alcohol through violence, injuries, mental health problems and diseases like cancer and stroke. It’s time to step up action to prevent this serious threat to the development of healthy societies.”

It is estimated that alcohol-use disorders affect 237 million men and 46 million women globally. The highest levels of these disorders are seen in European regions (14.8% and 3.5%), followed closely by the Americas (11.5% and 5.1%). Of the estimated 2.3 billion people who use alcohol more than half are from just three regions: Europe, the Americas, and the Western Pacific. Current trends suggest the numbers will only increase in these regions over the next 10 years.

As for underage drinking, the study found that 27% of children aged 15-19 consume alcohol. The three regions with the highest rate of underage drinking were Europe (44%), the Americas (38%) and the Western Pacific (38%). Data taken from school surveys suggests that in many countries children begin drinking before the age of 15.

Dr Vladimir Poznyak, Coordinator of WHO’s Management of Substance Abuse unit, suggests that countries need to take greater action against this trend.

“All countries can do much more to reduce the health and social costs of the harmful use of alcohol. Proven, cost-effective actions include increasing taxes on alcoholic drinks, bans or restrictions on alcohol advertising, and restricting the physical availability of alcohol. We would like to see Member States implement creative solutions that will save lives, such as taxing alcohol and restricting advertising. We must do more to cut demand and reach the target set by governments of a 10% relative reduction in consumption of alcohol globally between 2010 and 2025.”

As of today 95% of world countries employ alcohol excise taxes. Fewer than half of these, however, use pricing strategies, such as banning below-cost selling or volume discounts. WHO believes:

Reducing the harmful use of alcohol will help achieve a number of health-related targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those for maternal and child health, infectious diseases, noncommunicable diseases and mental health, injuries and poisonings.

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