2 Comments »Posted on Saturday 27 June 2009 at 5:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Musings

ResearchBlogging.org

It’s quite likely that a number of people reading this went out for a drink last night. After all, it was Friday and that’s what people do. I went to a rather enjoyable end-of-term party, and of course had a few beers. Alcohol consumption is such a normal component of our society that when you’re knocking a few back it’s difficult to remember it can actually be very harmful.

A series of papers published in The Lancet this week brings the message home. The first reports that 3.8%, or roughly one in 25, of all deaths worldwide are caused in some way by alcohol. This is about half the number caused by tobacco. Alcohol also contributes to 5% of years spent with disease or disability. Because of this, the authors recommend that the consumption of alcohol for certain health benefits should not be encouraged, as the harm far outweighs the gain.

These figures hide the details however. Due to gender differences in alcohol consumption, one in 16 men die from alcohol related causes, compared to just one in 90 women. This is changing as the number of women drinking increase.

Although these statistics are worldwide, alcohol consumption is not the same across the globe. The average adult drinks around 12 units per week, but in Europe this nearly doubles to around 23 units per week. The UK Government recommend a maximum of 14 units for women and 21 for men per week.

Whilst consumption may be high for Europe, it is in Russia where alcohol use takes the worst toll. A study of over 48,000 Russian deaths found that alcohol was responsible for more than half in those aged 15 to 54. Perhaps unsurprising, in a nation where some industrial workers drink one bottle of vodka per day.

It’s not just the health costs of alcohol that are high. In a paper calling for action on alcohol, the authors estimate that high- and middle-income countries spend more than 1% of GDP on economic costs related to alcohol. You may remember 1% of global GDP as the figure proposed by the Stern report for tackling climate change.

In the same paper, the authors question why alcohol is not higher on the global health agenda compared to tobacco and illegal drugs, considering the harm it can cause. They blame well-organised alcohol lobbyists for blocking action to curb consumption, saying that this must be combated.

This series makes for difficult reading. As a non-smoker, I celebrated when the UK ban came in and allowed me to go to the pub without smelling like a chimney. Discussions of implementing a minimum cost for alcohol however, as these reports suggest, set me protesting. Perhaps more expensive alcohol would be small price to pay however, considering the health benefits to be gained.

Rehm, J., Mathers, C., Popova, S., Thavorncharoensap, M., Teerawattananon, Y., & Patra, J. (2009). Global burden of disease and injury and economic cost attributable to alcohol use and alcohol-use disorders The Lancet, 373 (9682), 2223-2233 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60746-7

Zaridze, D., Brennan, P., Boreham, J., Boroda, A., Karpov, R., Lazarev, A., Konobeevskaya, I., Igitov, V., Terechova, T., & Boffetta, P. (2009). Alcohol and cause-specific mortality in Russia: a retrospective case–control study of 48 557 adult deaths The Lancet, 373 (9682), 2201-2214 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61034-5

Casswell, S., & Thamarangsi, T. (2009). Reducing harm from alcohol: call to action The Lancet, 373 (9682), 2247-2257 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60745-5


  1. 2 Comments

  2. “Alcohol also contributes to 5% of years spent with disease or disability. Because of this, the authors recommend that the consumption of alcohol for certain health benefits should not be encouraged, as the harm far outweighs the gain.”

    Hmm. That logic doesn’t work strictly speaking, because no-one is saying that people should drink to excess for health benefits. The recommendation is for light consumption, whereas heavy drinking is bad.

    But it could well be that encouraging “sensible” drinking actually makes heavy drinking more acceptable. After all, if you think that one glass of wine is good for you, how bad can five be?

    By Neuroskeptic on Sunday 28 June, 2009 at 11:30 am

  3. I think that is the logic at work. Don’t give alcohol any positive connotations, because people might misinterpret them.

    By Jacob Aron on Sunday 28 June, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.