Whether hookah or cigarettes, the most prevalent addiction worldwide is tobacco, with an estimated 22.5 percent of all adults smoking regularly, say University of Adelaide researchers. Alcohol, used by 43 percent of the earth’s total population — though abused by 4.9 percent — comes in a somewhat distant second. Naturally enough, these two behaviors also happen to cause the most harm.

What is the world’s drug of choice? To answer that question, the researchers compiled The Global Statistics on Addictive Behaviors: 2014 Status Report. The researchers used online resources to derive data for their itemized account of the most popular vices in each country, accessing the websites of the World Health Organization and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, among other global, regional, and national sites focused on alcohol use, tobacco use, psychoactive drug use, and gambling.

Analyzing the data, the researchers discovered an estimated one billion people (22.5 percent of adults) smoke tobacco products worldwide. Though smoking is clearly favored by one gender, it apparently harms both in a more equitable manner. While 32 percent of all men use tobacco compared to seven percent of women, estimates suggest the proportion of male and female deaths due to smoking is 11 percent and six percent, respectively.

“Eleven percent of deaths in males and six percent of deaths in females are linked to tobacco each year globally,” Dr. Linda Gowing, lead author and an associate professor at the university, stated in a press release. Though smoking may be the lead, drinking is the more colorful character in the story of addiction.

Alcohol & Pot

While nearly 2.1 billion people are known to imbibe, 240 million people — just under five percent of the world's adult population — suffer from alcohol use disorder. Again, men log higher addiction percentages than women, with 7.8 percent of men drinking in an unhealthy way compared to just 1.5 percent of all women. Altogether, the researchers estimate alcohol causes 257 disability-adjusted life years lost per 100,000 people.

Looking more closely at the numbers, a vivid picture of national mores arises, particularly in Europe. Western and Northern European countries are home to more problem drinkers and binge drinkers than Eastern or Southern European countries. Compared to the rest of the continent, Southern Europeans are far less alcoholic by a large margin. Binge drinking provides a clear example of this: About 44 percent of men and 23 percent of women in Northern Europe binge compared to 18 percent of men and a mere two percent of women in Southern Europe.

Fewer Northern and Central Americans drink in a disordered way than their southern neighbors — 67 percent of men and 43 percent of women compared to 70 percent and 48 percent, respectively. Yet South Americans are less likely to binge drink, with 18 percent of men and three percent of women behaving in this way, compared to 21 percent and six percent, respectively, of men and women in North and Central America.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when it comes to illicit psychoactive drugs, cannabis is king — 3.5 percent of the global population makes use of pot. Available data does not permit global estimates of problem gambling; however, in countries where this addiction has been assessed, the researchers clock prevalence at 1.5 percent.

Due (in part) to the sketchy nature of gambling data, the researchers encourage ongoing surveys of addiction information. “There is an urgent need to review the quality of data on which global estimates are made and coordinate efforts to arrive at a more consistent approach,” they concluded. 

Source: Gowing LR, Ali RL, Allsop S, et al. Global statistics on addictive behaviors: 2014 status report. Addiction. 2015.