Alcohol and drugs cause three million annual deaths, says WHO

Alcohol and drugs cause three million annual deaths, says WHO

Almost 5% of yearly deaths worldwide are caused by alcohol (2.6 million) and drugs (600,000) according to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The data shows that alcohol causes 2.6 million deaths worldwide while drugs are responsible for 600,000.

Of the total alcohol-related deaths, approximately 1.6 million were due to non-communicable diseases. These included 474,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease and 401,000 from cancer.

A further 724,000 deaths were due to injuries such as traffic crashes, self-harm and interpersonal violence.

In addition, around 284,000 were caused by communicable diseases. For example, WHO said that alcohol consumption is associated with a higher risk of contracting HIV. Deaths from tuberculosis are also more likely as alcohol suppresses certain immune responses.

The majority of the total deaths were among men, with two million deaths caused by alcohol and 400,000 by psychoactive drugs.

Younger people were also disproportionately affected, with 13% of alcohol-related deaths occurring in the 20-39 age group. Globally, almost one quarter (23%) of 15 to 19 year olds were found to be current drinkers. This proportion was much higher in the European region at 45.9% and the Americas at 43.9%

Overall, Europe and Africa had the highest rates of death due to alcohol consumption. Generally, rates were higher in higher-income countries and lower in lower-income countries.

‘A heavy burden’

The WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health and Treatment of Substance Use Disorders is an overview of data on worldwide alcohol and drug habits collected in 2019. All 194 WHO member countries were approached to contribute to the survey, with around 80% providing a response.

In addition to deaths, the report estimates the number of people living with substance-related disorders. It found that 400 million people were affected by alcohol use disorders globally, with 209 million suffering from alcohol dependence specifically.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, emphasised the potential impacts of substance abuse for wider health. He said: ‘Substance use severely harms individual health, increasing the risk of chronic diseases, mental health conditions, and tragically resulting in millions of preventable deaths every year. It places a heavy burden on families and communities, increasing exposure to accidents, injuries and violence.’

WHO described the availability of treatment for substance abuse as ‘incredibly low’. Most of the countries who responded to the survey had no specific budget attributed to such services. The organisation attributed the lack of provision to stigma and misconceptions around substance abuse, and low prioritisation by health agencies.

Dr Ghebreyesus called for urgent action on a global scale. He said: ‘To build a healthier, more equitable society, we must urgently commit to bold actions that reduce the negative health and social consequences of alcohol consumption and make treatment for substance use disorders accessible and affordable.’

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