WHO says alcohol killed 3.3 million people in 2012

Vodka au petit-déjeuner. Amman, 2010. [Evgeni Zotov/Flickr]

More than 3 million people died from using alcohol in 2012, for reasons ranging from cancer to violence, the World Health Organisation said on Monday (12 May), as it called on governments to do more to limit the damage.

“More needs to be done to protect populations from the negative health consequences of alcohol consumption,” said Oleg Chestnov, a WHO expert on chronic disease and mental health.

He added there was “no room for complacency”, warning that drinking too much kills more men than women, raises people’s risk of developing more than 200 diseases, and killed 3.3 million people in 2012.

On average, according to the WHO report, every person in the world aged 15 years or older drinks 6.2 liters of pure alcohol per year. But less than half the population – 38.3% – drinks, so those who do drink on average 17 liters of pure alcohol a year.

“We found that worldwide about 16% of drinkers engage in heavy episodic drinking – often referred to as ‘binge-drinking’ – which is the most harmful to health,” said Shekhar Saxena, director for mental health and substance abuse at the WHO.

Poorer people more affected

Poorer people are generally more affected by the social and health consequences of alcohol, he said: “They often lack quality health care and are less protected by functional family or community networks.”

The global status report on alcohol and health covered 194 countries and looked at alcohol consumption, its impact on public health and policy responses.

It found that some countries are already strengthening measures to protect people from harmful drinking. Those include increasing taxes on alcohol, limiting its availability by raising age limits and regulating marketing.

More countries should take similar action, WHO said. More also needed to be done to raise awareness of the damage alcohol can do to people’s health and screen for those who may need earlier intervention to cut down or stop.

Globally, Europe consumes the most alcohol per person. Some of its countries having particularly high rates of harmful drinking.

A study published earlier this year found that a quarter of all Russian men die before they reach their mid-fifties, largely from drinking to excess. Some men in that study reported drinking three or more bottles of vodka a week.

The WHO said global trend analyses showed that drinking has been stable over the last five years in Europe, Africa and the Americas. But it is growing in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific.

Contested figures

Figures on alcohol-related deaths are proving controversial, however.

Last year, a study in the European Journal of Public Health suggested that 49,000 people die of alcohol-related diseases in France per year. But the figures were contested by industry organisations, which pointed to the huge difference in estimate between the study and the 28,000 deaths identified in previous papers.

“An increase in deaths of more than 100% in 3 years, while total alcohol consumption has been steadily decreasing, highlights the problem of evaluation methods of mortality attributable to alcohol in France today,” said the Paris-based Institute for Scientific Research on Beverages (IREB), an industry-funded body.

At the European level, the European Commission’s informal alcohol strategy, launched in 2006, aims to reduce the health and social harm caused by excessive alcohol consumption, especially among young people.

>> Read our LinksDossier: Fighting alcohol harm: The EU’s strategy under review

Europeans have the highest per-capita consumption of alcohol and drinking causes nearly one in 10 cases of ill health and premature death, according to EU data.

Harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption is the third largest risk factor for ill health in the EU, responsible for 195,000 deaths each year and accounting for 12% of male and 2% of female premature mortality, according to EU figures.

The estimated economic cost to the EU is in the region of €125 billion.

>> Read our LinksDossier: Fighting alcohol harm: The EU's strategy under review

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