Harmful Use of Alcohol Led to 3.3 Million Deaths in 2012

Approximately 5.9 percent, or 3.3 million deaths worldwide in 2012, were attributable to the harmful use of alcohol, reported the World Health Organization (WHO). In its “Global status report on alcohol and health 2014,” the WHO provided a global overview of alcohol consumption as it relates to public health, health consequences, and national alcohol policies and intervention. In addition, the report provided country specific profiles for each of the 194 WHO Member States, including data on alcohol consumption levels and patterns, mortality and morbidity, and policies and interventions.

Public Health

According to the report, alcohol consumption and related harm are affected by numerous environmental factors, such as culture, the availability of alcohol, economic development, and the effectiveness of alcohol policies. The harmful use of alcohol can cause over 200 diseases, such as alcohol dependence, cancer, and liver cirrhosis, as well as injuries related to drunken driving and other accidents. More recently, research has demonstrated that the harmful use of alcohol has a causal relationship to the contraction of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

Global Consumption

In 2010, the global consumption of alcohol was equivalent to 6.2 liters of pure alcohol per person, 15 years of age and older (15+). However, 61.7 percent of the worldwide 15+ population did not consume alcohol in the past 12 months. The report noted that females are more frequently lifetime abstainers of alcohol than males, and the rate of abstention varies considerably across the 194 WHO Member States. The rate of heavy episodic drinking, or “binge-drinking,” is 16 percent of drinkers aged 15+. In addition, it was found that economically wealthy countries consumed more alcohol and had smaller numbers of abstainers. “As a rule, high-income countries have the highest alcohol per capita consumption (APC) and the highest prevalence of heavy episodic drinking among drinkers,” the report stated.

“We found that worldwide about 16% of drinkers engage in heavy episodic drinking—often referred to as ‘binge-drinking’—which is the most harmful to health,” said WHO Director Dr. Shekhar Saxena. “Lower income groups are more affected by the social and health consequences of alcohol. They often lack quality health care and are less protected by functional family or community networks.”

Death and Disease

As previously noted, 3.3 million deaths in 2012 were attributable to harmful alcohol consumption by either disease or related injury. This accounted for 7.6 percent of global deaths among males and four percent of global deaths among females in 2012. Further, 139 million disability-adjusted life years, or the estimated number of years of “healthy” life lost globally, were attributable to alcohol consumption, accounting for 5.1 percent of the worldwide burden of disease and injury. The highest numbers of alcohol related deaths and disability-adjusted life years were found in the WHO European Region.

Policy and Intervention

Alcohol policies and interventions have been created to reduce the harmful use of alcohol, as well as the global health and social burden caused from such use. According to the WHO, 66 member states have created national policies to reduce the harmful use of alcohol and a higher number of countries have imposed stricter blood alcohol concentration limits than in 2008. Further, approximately 140 countries also reported that they engaged in national awareness-raising activities within the last three years.

“More needs to be done to protect populations from the negative health consequences of alcohol consumption,” stated WHO Assistant Director-General Dr. Oleg Chestnov in a WHO news release. “The report clearly shows that there is no room for complacency when it comes to reducing the harmful use of alcohol.”