Alcohol is both: a toxic, psychoactive, carcinogenic, teratogen substance and a commercial commodity heavily marketed by vested interests. Alcohol harms the health and well-being of people and communities, damages the social fabric and economy of societies, that hampers sustainable development and that fuels poverty, violence, and crime.
The products and unethical business practices of the alcohol industry contribute to physical and mental ill-health, to injuries and violence, to suicides, to quality of life lost, as well as to premature death. In their relentless pursuit of alcohol profits, the alcohol industry is manufacturing death, disease, destruction and disability.
While less than half of the world’s adults have consumed alcohol in the last 12 months, the global burden of disease caused by alcohol is enormous.
Disturbingly, it exceeds those caused by many other risk factors and diseases high on the global health agenda. Over 200 health conditions are linked to alcohol, ranging from liver diseases, road injuries and violence, to cancers, cardiovascular diseases, suicides, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.”Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization, in the foreword of the 2018 WHO Global Alcohol Status Report
Alcohol is among the leading risk factors for poor health, underdevelopment and poverty and preventable death worldwide.
Alcohol’s Disease Burden
Every year 3 million people die due to alcohol-related causes. This means that one person is lost to alcohol every 10 seconds.
Alcohol is a major determinant of ill health and one of the four most common preventable risk factors for non-communicable diseases (NCDs, the world’s biggest killer).
- Alcohol consumption contributes to diabetes, heart disease, liver cirrhosis and stroke.
- Alcohol use is causally linked to at least seven types of cancers.
- Alcohol weakens the immune system and contributes to respiratory and infectious diseases, including a significant contribution to HIV/ AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) deaths.
“Of all the threats to human health, it is alcohol which causes the widest range of injury … It shrinks the brain and impairs the intellect. It causes failure of the liver, heart and peripheral nerves. It contributes to depression, violence and the breakup of personal and social life…”Dr. Geoffrey Rose, in Rose’s Strategy of Preventive Medicine, 2008
Alcohol’s Cancer Burden
It is known since 1988 that alcohol is a cancer-causing agent, classified in the same groups as asbestos and tobacco.
There is strong scientific evidence of a causal relationship between alcohol use and multiple types of cancer, including cancers of the head and neck, mouth, esophagus, liver, breast and colon. For alcohol-attributable cancers, generally the higher the level of alcohol consumption, the higher the risk.
Worldwide, up to 27% of the disease burden due to specific cancers in those over 50 years is attributable to alcohol.
Alcohol’s Social Burden: Harm to Others
In communities and societies across the world, alcohol causes an array of health and social problems not only to those that consume alcohol, but also to those around them – to children, intimate partners, other family members and friends, colleagues and members of the community. Harms from others’ alcohol use include violence, injury, child abuse and neglect, financial problems and harms that affect relationships and the quality of people’s lives.
Alcohol harms people other than the alcohol user.
- In Europe, alcohol is a factor in 40% of all homicides.
- In Australia, alcohol was involved in 34% of incidents involving intimate partner violence in 2014, and in 29% of family violence incidents.
- Among South African women experiencing intimate partner violence, almost half reported that alcohol played a role.
- In the United States, more than 10 percent of children live with a parent with an alcohol use problem.
A woman’s use of alcohol during pregnancy also risks Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), a condition that can lead to lifelong physical, mental and neurological problems.
Alcohol’s Economic Burden
The economic costs of alcohol dwarf the contribution of the alcohol trade to the economy, harming productivity in the workplace, jeopardizing the economic sustainability of the health care and welfare systems and eroding GDPs.
The economic burden of alcohol worldwide is substantial, accounting for up to 5% of the GDP in some countries. Alcohol burdens the health system, productivity, social welfare, public safety and the justice system.
- Every year, alcohol is estimated to cost society $249 billion in the United States.
- The economic burden of alcohol in the European Union is €156 every year.
- In SouthAfrica, the cost of alcohol harm was calculated to be as much as 12% of the GDP.
Alcohol’s Expanding Burden
In recent years, alcohol consumption has been increasing in many regions around the globe as the alcohol industry expands operations and markets, especially in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Alcohol consumption poses health and social risks across populations, but the risks and consequences are magnified in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).