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Alcohol use, drink addiction claim over three million lives yearly – WHO

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A recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals a stark reality: alcohol consumption and the use of psychoactive drugs result in approximately 2.6 million deaths worldwide annually, which accounts for nearly 5 percent of all global deaths.

The report titled “Global status report on alcohol and health and treatment of substance use disorders” further highlights a troubling gender gap, with these substances disproportionately impacting men.

Annually, an estimated 2 million deaths are attributed to alcohol and 0.4 million to drugs among men, while a staggering 400 million individuals globally struggle with alcohol and drug use disorders, including 209 million people dealing specifically with alcohol dependence.

WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus 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.

“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.”

The report sounds an alarm that despite some progress in reducing alcohol-related deaths since 2010, the numbers remain tragically high. An estimated 2.6 million lives were lost globally in 2019 due to alcohol consumption alone, with the highest rates in the European and African regions.

The report emphasizes the urgent need to accelerate global efforts towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 3.5 by 2030. This target specifically focuses on reducing alcohol and drug use and improving access to quality treatment for people struggling with substance use disorders. In essence, the WHO is calling for a renewed international commitment to tackling this significant public health challenge.

According to WHO, the death rates due to alcohol consumption per litre of alcohol consumed are highest in low-income countries and lowest in high-income countries. Of all deaths attributable to alcohol in 2019, an estimated 1.6 million deaths were from noncommunicable diseases, including 474 000 deaths from cardiovascular diseases and 401 000 from cancer.

Some 724 000 deaths were due to injuries, such as those from traffic crashes, self-harm and interpersonal violence. Another 284 000 deaths were linked to communicable diseases. For example, alcohol consumption has been shown to increase the risk of HIV transmission resulting from an increased risk of unprotected sex and by increasing the risk of TB infection and mortality by suppressing a wide range of immune responses. The highest proportion (13 percent) of alcohol-attributable deaths in 2019 were among young people aged 20–39 years.

Total alcohol per capita consumption in the world population decreased slightly from 5.7 litres in 2010 to 5.5 litres in 2019. The highest levels of per capita consumption in 2019 were observed in the WHO European Region (9.2 litres) and the Region of Americas (7.5 litres).

The level of alcohol consumption per capita among drinkers amounts on average to 27 grams of pure alcohol per day, roughly equivalent to two glasses of wine, two bottles of beer (33cl) or two servings of spirits (4cl). This level and frequency of drinking is associated with increased risks of numerous health conditions and associated mortality and disability.

In 2019, 38 percent of current drinkers had engaged in heavy episodic drinking, defined as consuming at least 60g of pure alcohol on one or more occasions in the preceding month – roughly equivalent to 4 or 5 glasses of wine, bottles of beer or servings of spirits. Continuous heavy drinking was highly prevalent among men.

Globally, 23.5 percent of all 15–19-year-olds were current drinkers. Rates of current drinking were highest among 15–19-year-olds in the European region (45.9 percent) followed by the Americas (43.9 percent).

WHO notes that while effective treatments exist for substance use disorders, a vast gap separates them from those in need. A shockingly low proportion of people, ranging from less than 1percent to a maximum of 35 percent in reporting countries, accessed treatment services in 2019.

This disparity is further compounded by a lack of dedicated resources. Most of the 145 reporting countries lacked specific budgets or data on government spending for addiction treatment. Additionally, nearly half of these countries don’t offer crucial support groups, despite their proven effectiveness.

Stigma, discrimination, and doubts about treatment efficacy are major contributors to this gap. Furthermore, health and development agencies continue to underprioritize substance use disorders, leaving millions struggling without the help they deserve.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is urging governments and partners to step up efforts in eight key areas to tackle substance use and achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 3.5. This target aims to significantly reduce the negative health and social impacts of drug and alcohol use by 2030.

These eight areas include a coordinated global advocacy campaign is needed to educate the public about the dangers of substance use and challenge misconceptions; strengthening healthcare systems by equipping them with the resources and expertise to prevent and treat substance use disorders; increased training for healthcare workers; renewed focus on implementing the SAFER package within the Global Alcohol Action Plan is crucial to address the specific challenges of alcohol use, and boosting international cooperation. Others are engaging stakeholders, improving monitoring and research, and mobilising resources.

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