The 'harmful use' of alcohol leads to about six deaths per minute, says new WHO report

A new report from the World Health Organization outlines some sobering statistics on the global toll of alcohol consumption.

  • The report indicates that the 'harmful use' of alcohol leads to about six deaths per minute.
  • Poorer countries tend to see higher rates of alcohol-related deaths and injuries.
  • The WHO suggests deaths can be prevented through policies that restrict pricing, marketing, consumption and other factors.

Alcohol is responsible for 5 percent of all deaths worldwide, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO). The report, which used global data for 2016, includes some sobering statistics. The 'harmful use' of alcohol leads to about 3 million deaths annually — about six every minute — and the vast majority of those deaths, 2.3 million, are suffered by men. Among people ages 20 to 39, alcohol is responsible for about 13.5 percent of all deaths.

The report also indicates:

  • There is a causal relationship between harmful use of alcohol and a range of mental and behavioral disorders, other noncommunicable conditions as well as injuries.
  • The harmful use of alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions.
  • The latest causal relationships have been established between harmful drinking and incidence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis as well as the course of HIV/AIDS.
  • Beyond health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol brings significant social and economic losses to individuals and society at large.
  • Globally, alcohol is linked to 7.7 percent of all deaths among men, but just 2.6 percent of all deaths among women.
  • Europe showed the highest levels of alcohol consumption, though Africa reported the highest levels of alcohol-related injuries and diseases.
  • Globally, an estimated 237 million men and 46 million women have alcohol-use disorders, mostly in Europe (14.8 percent and 3.5 percent) and the Americas (11.5 percent and 5.1 percent).

Governments aren't implementing effective policies

WHO alcohol-control expert, Dr. Vladimir Poznyak, told The Guardian that the health burden of alcohol was "unacceptably large."

"Unfortunately, the implementation of the most effective policy options is lagging behind the magnitude of the problems," he said. "Governments need to do more to meet the global targets and to reduce the burden of alcohol on societies; this is clear, and this action is either absent or not sufficient in most of the countries of the world."

Although the levels of harm caused by alcohol largely depend on factors both individual (age, socioeconomic status, gender) and societal (culture, alcohol laws), the report suggests that governments can curb alcohol-related deaths and injuries by:

  • regulating the marketing of alcoholic beverages (in particular to younger people)
  • regulating and restricting the availability of alcohol
  • enacting appropriate drink-driving policies
  • reducing demand through taxation and pricing mechanisms
  • raising awareness of public health problems caused by harmful use of alcohol and ensuring support for effective alcohol policies
  • providing accessible and affordable treatment for people with alcohol-use disorders, and
  • implementing screening and brief interventions programmes for hazardous and harmful drinking in health services.

"Now the task we share is to help countries put in place policies that make a real and measurable difference in people's lives," wrote Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO. "We have no time to waste; it is time to deliver on alcohol control."

The WHO report comes in the wake of a recent study, published by The Lancet, in August, that made headlines primarily for suggesting that the "safest level of drinking is none."

"Alcohol poses dire ramifications for future population health in the absence of policy action today. Our results indicate that alcohol use and its harmful effects on health could become a growing challenge as countries become more developed, and enacting or maintaining strong alcohol control policies will be vital," Emmanuela Gakidou, the report's senior author, told The Guardian.

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