The World Health Organization (WHO) released a new report on alcohol Monday, and the results are not pretty. Worldwide, 3.3 million deaths in 2012 were due to alcohol, the familiar drug that commonly raises the risk of more than 200 diseases, including cancer and liver cirrhosis. Yet the percentage was significantly higher among men than women: 7.6 percent of men’s deaths were alcohol-related compared to 4.0 percent of women’s deaths.
To anyone hoisting a brew at their local bar, some of WHO’s important findings appear laughable at best. The report highlights, for instance, how drinking has been linked to injuries. (Really? Tell me more.) After extensive research, WHO scientists also found that alcohol may lead to — prepare yourself and read slowly now so you don’t faint — sex and violence. (Noooo!) “Women are also affected by interpersonal violence and risky sexual behaviour as a result of the drinking problems and drinking behaviour of male partners,” the authors ominously note.
Yet WHO also emphasizes how harmful use of alcohol, such as binge-drinking, makes people more susceptible to infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and pneumonia, and these drinking behaviors may be more common than previously thought. “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 Dr. Shekhar Saxena, director for Mental Health and Substance Abuse. "Lower-income groups are more affected ... They often lack quality health care and are less protected by functional family or community networks.”
Worldwide, people over the age of 15 drink, on average, 6.2 liters (about 1.7 gallons) of pure alcohol each year. Oddly, after establishing this fact, WHO authors then declare how their own numbers may be deceptive. Since more than half the population (about 38 percent) actually drinks, this means that those who are drinking probably consume, on average, more like 17 liters (or 4.5 gallons) of pure alcohol each year. The authors also point out that though Europe has the highest per capita consumption rate, that rate has been stable over the last five years. By comparison, Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific nations have been showing increases during the past few years.
So, what exactly are people drinking? This varies widely by country and can be viewed here. In the U.S., for example, 50 percent of alcohol consumption is beer, 17 percent is wine, and 33 percent is spirits. Compare that to the statistics in Japan, where 52 percent of alcohol consumption is spirits, 19 percent beer, four percent wine, and 25 percent is “other,” a category that includes home-brewed intoxications.
Along with direct health consequences, the authors discuss indirect socioeconomic effects that may eventually prove harmful to a drinker’s well-being. “When an individual crosses culture-specific boundaries, he or she may experience socioeconomic consequences such as loss of earnings, unemployment or family problems, stigma and barriers to accessing health care,” the WHO researchers wrote. Though the higher percentage of alcohol-related deaths among men concerns the authors, they are also worried about the fact that drinking rates among women are steadily increasing “in line with economic development and changing gender roles.” This is key since female health is more vulnerable to alcohol than male health.