Social drinkers who have a glass of wine at dinner or a beer while watching sports don't generally think of alcohol as harmful. But a report released last week by the World Health Organization (WHO) finds excessive alcohol use results in the death of 2.5 million people annually. And that figure is prompting WHO to call for greater global action to reduce the hazardous consumption of alcohol.
According to the Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2011, alcohol consumption is the world's third-largest risk factor for disease and disability. It's also a causal factor in 60 types of diseases and injuries, such as alcohol dependence, liver cirrhosis, cancers and injuries, and it's a component cause in 200 others.
Nearly 4% of all deaths worldwide are related to alcohol. That's more deaths than those caused by HIV/AIDS, violence or tuberculosis. Heavy drinking also takes a societal toll -- through violence, drunk driving, child neglect, child abuse and alcohol-related birth defects.
Adults and Youths Affected
And it's not just the volume of consumption but the pattern of drinking -- especially binge drinking -- that's been linked to injuries and cardiovascular diseases. Worldwide, about 11.5% of drinkers reportedly have weekly binges, with male drinkers outnumbering women four-to-one.
Given those figures, it's not too surprising that men ages 15 to 59 consistently engage in hazardous drinking at much higher levels than women. And excessive alcohol use also increasingly affects youths (ages 15 to 29), resulting in 9% of all deaths in that age group.
As you might expect, high-income countries have the highest rates of alcohol consumption, while Islamic regions have the lowest. On a global level, the U.S. falls into the midrange of alcohol use. Americans drink 9.4 liters, or nearly 20 pints, per year -- about half as much as folks in Moldova.
A Global Problem
But U.S. alcohol consumption pales in comparison to many Eastern European countries. According to the report, every fifth death in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States can be linked to harmful drinking. And risky patterns of binge drinking can also be found in Mexico and South Africa.
Most countries reported stable consumption levels during 2001-2005. But some African and Southeast Asian countries, where income levels have risen, had marked increases in alcohol consumption. Public-policy programs regarding alcohol, however, remain a low priority in many countries.
One of the most effective policies to control drinking is age restrictions. Another is increasing alcohol prices. Additional policies include state-controlled sales, drinking-and-driving laws and some form of advertising regulations. Of course, alcohol companies prefer self-regulation over imposed rules.
The WHO's report also matches findings from a recent study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, which found alcohol far more of a danger to society than illegal drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin.