The Grapevine

Alcohol, Tobacco Pose Greater Threat To Global Health Than Illicit Drugs: Study

Alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs: Of these three options, which would you consider to be the greatest threat to human welfare?  

Surprisingly, illicit drug use is the wrong answer, according to a new report which combined data from the World Health Organization, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The review titled "Global Statistics on Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illicit Drug Use: 2017 Status Report" was published in the journal Addiction on May 11. Led by Amy Peacock, a psychologist from the Australia National Drug and Research Centre, the study focused on the burden of death and disease related to substance use.

Impact on human welfare was measured by calculating the loss of disability-adjusted life years (DALY). The World Health Organization defined one DALY as one lost year of "healthy" life.

Based on analysis of global statistics for the year 2015, tobacco cost the world 170.9 million DALYs while alcohol cost 85 million DALYs. When looking at the impact of illicit drug use, the findings revealed the figure to be the lowest of the three, at 27.8 million DALYs.

On a global level, it was estimated one in five adults report at least one occasion of heavy alcohol use in the past month while one in seven adults (15.2 percent) smoke tobacco.

The report revealed high-income North American region (United States, Canada), Australia, and New Zealand had the highest rates of cannabis, opioid, and cocaine dependence. In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans lost their lives from an overdose with more than half the deaths involving a prescription or illicit opioid.

Alcohol consumption and tobacco use were higher in many parts of Europe compared to other countries. In the past, researchers have suggested the high rates of drinking in Europe put citizens at a heightened risk of developing certain types of cancer.

"Europeans proportionately suffered more but in absolute terms, the mortality rate was greatest in low and middle-income countries with large populations and where the quality of data was more limited," the authors wrote.

Indeed, one of the major limitations of the report is that data collection is not equally reliable all over the world, with particular challenges faced by developing countries. Africa, Caribbean, and regions of Latin America and Asia had insufficient or no data on substance use.

"Tobacco and alcohol are more commonly used and make larger contributions to disease burden than illicit drugs," the authors stated, "but the latter’s burden is underestimated because of limitations on data availability and quality."

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 480,000 Americans die from illnesses related to tobacco use each year, accounting for 30 percent of all cancer-related deaths. Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health estimated that roughly 88,000 people in the country die from alcohol-related causes each year.