New report finds over three million deaths per year were attributable to alcohol consumption and drug use

Wine bottles on a supermarket shelf. Photo Courtesy:  WHO/Alex Plonsky

Over three million deaths per year were attributable to alcohol consumption and drug use, a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) found. Of these deaths, 2.6 million were attributable to alcohol consumption, accounting for nearly five percent of all deaths, with the highest numbers in the WHO European Region and African Region.

Notably, the vast majority of these deaths were among men, with the highest prevalence in the 20-39 age group.

The death rates were also highest in low-income countries and lowest in high-income countries.

“Substance use severely harms individual health, increasing the risk of chronic diseases, mental health conditions, and tragically resulting in millions of preventable deaths every year,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“It places a heavy burden on families and communities, increasing exposure to accidents, injuries, and violence,” he added.

The report found an estimated 400 million people lived with alcohol and drug use disorders globally. More than half of these individuals lived with alcohol dependence.

Given the immense health concerns, the report urged accelerated global action towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 3.5 by 2030 by reducing alcohol and drug consumption and improving access to quality treatment for substance use disorders.

Alcohol consumption around the world

Drinkers consume an average of two servings a day, an amount associated with increased risks of numerous health conditions and associated mortality.

Meanwhile, 38 percent of drinkers were found to have four to five servings on one or more occasions in the preceding month, an amount considered to be heavy episodic drinking.

Around the world, the highest levels of per capita alcohol consumption was found in the WHO European Region and the Region of the Americas.

Treatment gap

Treatment coverage for substance abuse disorders remains incredibly low. The proportion of people in contact with substance use treatment services ranged from less than one per cent to no more than 35 per cent, in countries providing this data.

Most of the 145 countries that reported data did not have a specific budget or data on governmental expenditures for treatment of substance use disorders.

Meanwhile, almost half of responding countries do not offer any substance abuse support groups.

Moving towards SDG target

To accelerate progress towards achievement of SDG target 3.5, which aims to strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, the WHO is calling on governments and partners to intensify actions in various strategic areas.

“To build a healthier, more equitable society, we must urgently commit to bold actions that reduce the negative health and social consequences of alcohol consumption and make treatment for substance use disorders accessible and affordable,” Dr. Ghebreyesus said.

Strategic areas include increased awareness through a global advocacy campaign, scaling up the capacity of health care systems and the training of health professionals, and accelerating resource mobilization.

WHO is also urging a re-commitment to the implementation of the Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022-2030, a comprehensive strategy to effectively reduce the harmful use of alcohol worldwide.