Many people drink alcohol in social settings, both for fun or as a way to unwind after a hard day. But the reality of alcohol consumption across the globe can make "happy hour" seem not so happy.
A recent report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that harmful alcohol consumption killed over 3 million people worldwide in 2012.
The report explained that alcohol consumption is not only related to dependence and addiction but many more health issues. Previous studies have tied alcohol consumption to an increased risk of over 200 health conditions, social and economic losses on the individual and societal levels, and violence and injuries.
The lead editors of this WHO report were Vladimir Poznyak, MD, PhD, and Dag Rekve, MSC, from the Management of Substance Abuse Unit in the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse of WHO in Geneva, Switzerland.
The report was based on data on alcohol consumption in 2012 from 194 countries that are members of WHO.
WHO estimated that on average, each person in the world over the age of 15 years old drinks approximately 210 fluid ounces of pure alcohol (and alcoholic beverages are generally not purely alcohol) per year. However, WHO explained that only 38 percent of the world population over 15 years old drinks alcohol, meaning that drinkers consume closer to 275 fluid ounces of pure alcohol per year.
The report showed that harmful alcohol consumption contributed to 6 percent of all deaths worldwide and 5 percent of the global burden of disease — killing one person every 10 seconds in 2012.
“We found that worldwide about 16 percent of drinkers engage in heavy episodic drinking — often referred to as ‘binge-drinking’ — which is the most harmful to health,” said Dr. Shekhar Saxena, Director for Mental Health and Substance Abuse at WHO, in a press statement. "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.”
Drinking also was responsible for 8 percent of deaths among men worldwide and 4 percent of deaths among women worldwide, but WHO has found that alcohol consumption is rising among women.
Overall, alcohol consumption can be harmful to a person’s health in so many ways. First, it can contribute to diseases like cancer and liver cirrhosis, in which the liver slowly deteriorates and loses function. Second, recent studies have linked harmful alcohol consumption to the contraction of infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, an infection of the lungs.
Findings from previous studies on alcohol consumption by region showed that Europe had the highest rate of alcohol consumption per capita — a trend that remained stable over the past five years.
Alcohol consumption rates also have remained stable in Africa and the Americas over the past five years, while consumption rates have increased in the past five years in the South-East Asia and the Western Pacific regions.
This WHO report highlighted that some of the WHO member countries have already taken steps to protect their citizens from the consequences of alcohol consumption. Such steps have included increased alcohol taxes, increasing the drinking age to limit availability, and more closely regulating the marketing of alcoholic drinks.
However, WHO believes that countries need to take more action to reduce the global burden of alcohol consumption through the development of the following:
- Policies on the national level to reduce harmful drinking
- National awareness-raising activities
- Health services that provide prevention and treatment services
- Ways to get communities involved in the reduction and prevention of alcohol use
“More needs to be done to protect populations from the negative health consequences of alcohol consumption,” Dr. Oleg Chestnov, WHO Assistant Director-General for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health, said in a press statement. “The report clearly shows that there is no room for complacency when it comes to reducing the harmful use of alcohol.”
WHO would like to see a voluntary 10 percent reduction in harmful alcohol use worldwide by 2025.
The World Health Organization released this report, titled "Global status report on alcohol and health 2014," on May 12.