Although it’s an important part of our social culture, alcohol is also a deadly force in this world. According to a report released by the World Health Organization earlier this year, alcohol is more deadly than AIDS, tuberculosis or violence.
Actually, at 2.5 million alcohol related deaths each year, unsafe alcohol use is responsible for nearly four per cent of deaths worldwide.
Alcohol is the world’s third largest risk factor for disease burden after childhood malnutrition and unsafe sex—but it is the leading risk factor in many higher income nations such as the Americas and the Western Pacific. In Europe, it is the second largest.
In its Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, the WHO suggests rising incomes have spurred more drinking in some of the heavily populated countries in Africa and Asia over recent years. Along with this, binge drinking is becoming more of a problem in many developed countries. In Russia, alcohol is responsible for one in every five deaths.
At the same time, many countries have weak control policies surrounding alcohol and this is not a priority for governments in spite of the rising human cost of excessive alcohol consumption. Of course, here at home we are aware of some of the dangers of excessive alcohol use. Our government has put in place many of the recommended policies to reduce the impact of harmful alcohol use—including minimum legal age, legal limits on blood alcohol levels when driving and taxes on alcoholic beverages.
Still, the dangers are not gone. Most of us have met someone affected by a drunk driving incident and we know about increased violence when alcohol is involved as well as chronic illness such as cirrohsis of the liver due to long-term alcohol abuse.
Alcohol abuse also increases the likelihood of various cancers, cardiovascular disease, sexually transmitted infections and suicide. It weakens the immune system also lowers our inhibitions so that we engage in more risky behaviours.
Young adults are particularly at risk when it comes to problem drinking. Around the world, 320,000 people between the age of 15 and 29 die from alcohol-related causes each year—representing nine per cent of deaths in that age group. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death among young men aged 15 to 59.
Unfortunately, alcohol abuse has the ability to reach far beyond simply the health and safety of the individual doing the drinking. Friends, family and bystanders can all be put at risk.
Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.