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More than 3 million deaths due to alcohol and drug use; Men remain most affected – WHO


By: Henrietta Afful

A recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO), underscores the impact of alcohol consumption and psychoactive drug use on global mortality.

According to the findings of the report, alcohol consumption led to approximately 2.6 million deaths annually, making up 4.7% of all deaths globally. In addition, psychoactive drug use was responsible for 0.6 million deaths per year.

Notably, men accounted for a significant portion of these fatalities, with 2 million deaths attributed to alcohol and 0.4 million to psychoactive drugs.

The Global status report on alcohol and health and treatment of substance use disorders by the World Health Organization (WHO) presents a thorough update using data from 2019.

The Report highlights the extensive public health implications of alcohol and drug use globally.

According to the report, an estimated 400 million individuals worldwide were affected by alcohol and drug use disorders.

Specifically, 209 million people were living with alcohol dependence, emphasizing the significant prevalence and impact of these conditions on a global scale.

Speaking to the issue, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, 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 WHO Director-General added.

The report underscores the need to expedite global efforts in achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 3.5 by 2030. This includes reducing alcohol and drug consumption while enhancing accessibility to high-quality treatment for substance use disorders.

The report emphasizes that although there has been some decrease in alcohol-related death rates since 2010, the total number of deaths attributed to alcohol consumption remains alarmingly high, reaching 2.6 million in 2019.

The European and African regions reported the highest numbers of fatalities. Moreover, the death rates per litre of alcohol consumed are notably elevated in low-income countries compared to their counterparts in high-income countries.

In 2019, alcohol was responsible for a significant number of deaths, totaling an estimated 1.6 million from noncommunicable diseases. Among these, 474,000 deaths were attributed to cardiovascular diseases, and 401,000 to cancer.

Additionally, alcohol contributed to 724,000 deaths from injuries, including those from traffic accidents, self-harm, and interpersonal violence. Another 284,000 deaths were linked to communicable diseases, such as increased risks of HIV transmission and tuberculosis infections and mortality due to suppressed immune responses.

Notably, young adults aged 20–39 years accounted for the highest proportion (13%) of alcohol-related deaths in 2019.

Alcohol consumption trends

Total Alcohol Consumption Trends:

  • Total alcohol per capita consumption globally decreased from 5.7 litres in 2010 to 5.5 litres in 2019. This suggests a slight decline in overall alcohol consumption per person over this period.
  1. Regional Consumption Patterns:
    • In 2019, the highest levels of per capita alcohol consumption were observed in the WHO European Region (9.2 litres) and the Region of the Americas (7.5 litres). These regions have notably higher average alcohol consumption compared to the global average of 5.5 litres.
  2. Average Consumption Among Drinkers:
    • Among drinkers, the average consumption is about 27 grams of pure alcohol per day. This is approximately equivalent to two glasses of wine, two bottles of beer (33cl each), or two servings of spirits (4cl each).
  3. Heavy Episodic Drinking:
    • In 2019, 38% of current drinkers engaged in heavy episodic drinking, defined as consuming at least 60 grams of pure alcohol on one or more occasions in the preceding month. This level of drinking is associated with increased health risks.
    • Heavy episodic drinking was more prevalent among men.
  4. Alcohol Consumption Among 15-19 Year Olds:
    • Globally, 23.5% of all 15–19 year olds were current drinkers in 2019.
    • The highest rates of current drinking among 15–19 year olds were in the European region (45.9%), followed by the Americas (43.9%).

These statistics highlight both the global trends and regional variations in alcohol consumption, as well as specific risks associated with heavy episodic drinking and consumption among younger populations.

Effective treatment options for substance use disorders are available; however, treatment coverage remains significantly limited. In 2019, the proportion of individuals accessing substance use treatment services ranged widely, from under 1% to a maximum of 35% across countries that reported data.

A large majority of the 145 countries providing data did not allocate specific budget lines or document governmental expenditures for treating substance use disorders. Furthermore, despite the beneficial role of mutual help and peer support groups, nearly half of the surveyed countries indicated that such support groups were not available for individuals with substance use disorders.

Several factors contribute to these gaps in treatment, including stigma, discrimination, and misconceptions about the effectiveness of available treatments. Additionally, the low prioritization of substance use disorders by health and development agencies exacerbates these challenges.

To accelerate progress towards achievement of SDG target 3.5 (which focuses on strengthening prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol), governments and partners are to intensify actions in the following strategic areas:

  • increase awareness through a coordinated global advocacy campaign;
  • strengthen prevention and treatment capacity of health and social care systems;
  • scale up training of health professionals;
  • re-commit to the implementation of the Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022-2030 with a focus on the SAFER package;
  • accelerate international efforts on capacity-building and knowledge transfer;
  • engage civil society organizations, professional associations and people with lived experience;
  • improve multi-level monitoring systems and corresponding research capacity; and
  • scale up resource mobilization, allocation, and innovative funding mechanisms to strengthen capacity of health and social systems.

By focusing on these strategic areas, governments and partners can work towards reducing the health and social burden associated with substance use and contribute to achieving SDG target 3.5 effectively.

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