In the two and a half minutes it takes to read this story, fifteen people will die an alcohol-related death. A death toll surpassing violence, TB and AIDS combined hangs on what many view as a benign substance found in nearly every grocery store and ballpark. Alcohol, the world's third-leading cause of preventable injury and death, claims 3.3 million lives a year according to a May 12 report by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Including intoxicated driving, alcohol-induced violence and a causal relationship with more than 60 diseases and disorders, alcohol causes one in 20 deaths globally every year, says the WHO. "This actually translates into one death every 10 seconds," says Shekhar Saxena, who comment on the WHO's 2014 Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health. Intoxicated motorists are responsible for one in seven of those deaths.
Alcohol caused the deaths of 7.6 percent of men and 4 percent of women who died in 2012, the year of the study data.
More people in countries where alcohol consumption has traditionally been low, like China and India, are also increasingly taking up the habit as their wealth increases, according to the WHO report. "More needs to be done to protect populations from the negative health consequences of alcohol consumption," Oleg Chestnov of the WHO's Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health unit said in a statement.
The popular misconception is that alcohol causes only the disease of alcoholism, according to alcoholism recovery book Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud. However, drinking is linked to more than 200 health conditions, including liver cirrhosis and some cancers. "Many of the diseases don't appear until years after the person stops drinking. The damage is done early and cumulatively.”
A separate 2013 oncology report (see related article) went so far as to say, “When it comes to cancer, no amount of alcohol is safe.” Alcohol abuse also makes people more prone to contracting or worsening infectious diseases like tuberculosis, HIV and pneumonia, the WHO found.
Most deaths attributed to alcohol, around a third, are caused by associated diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. This despite observational claims that a moderate amount of red wine has cardiovascular health benefits. Researcher call those claims, “wishful thinking,” and say they don't hold up in evidence-based studies (see related examiner.com article).
The world's wealthiest nations – in Europe and the Americas – are boozier than people in poorer countries, but rising wealth in emerging economies is also driving up alcohol consumption. Eastern Europe and Russia are home to the world's biggest drinkers. Russian men who drink consumed an average of 32 liters (8.5 gallons) of pure alcohol a year, according to 2010 statistics, followed by other Western countries including Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and South Africa.
On average, every person above the age of 15 worldwide drinks 6.2 liters (about a gallon and a half) of pure alcohol in a year, according to the report. Counting only those who drink though, that rises to 17 liters (4.5 gal.) of pure alcohol each year. Nearly half the world's adult population is entirely abstinent.