Alcohol Kills One Person Every 10 Seconds

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A sobering new report finds that 3.3 million people — one in 20 worldwide — died from alcohol consumption in 2012, prompting calls this week for global action.

The World Health Organization issued its findings at a special meeting Monday, calling for governments to take aggressive action to reduce excessive drinking. Leading the findings was that 5.9 percent of the world’s deaths were caused by alcohol consumption — and that 16 percent of the world binge drinks.

“This actually translates into one death every 10 seconds,” Shekhar Saxena, who heads the WHO’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse department, told reporters in Geneva.

A year-over-year comparison of 2012 and 2011 was not possible because the new mortality information was incorporated into the latest findings, the authors wrote. But they conclude that alcohol deaths have risen over time and that the harmful use of alcohol ranks as the leading risk factor for death and disability in large parts of the world.

“It is difficult to compare this percentage with the previous status report in 2011,”  said WHO’s Geneva-based spokesman Glenn Raymond Thomas, “because there is now new evidence on the role of alcohol consumption in mortality.”

Alcohol Consumption Increasing

The increase in deaths blamed on heavy drinking has changed the estimated ranking of the harmful use of alcohol as a leading cause of death and disability from eighth place in 1990 to fifth in 2010, the report noted.

The amount of drinking around the world is going up, especially in India and China, where incomes are rising and alcohol marketing is active.

On average, according to the WHO report, every person in the world 15 years and older drinks 6.2 liters (1.6 gallons) of pure alcohol every year. But less than half the population — 38 percent — drinks, so those who do drink on average 17 liters of pure alcohol a year. Russian men gulp down the most, with an average of 32 liters of pure alcohol a year.

More Men Falling Victim

The report found a marked difference in the loss of life among men and women, with alcohol blamed in the deaths of 7.6 percent of men and 4 percent of women in 2012. This contrast “is an indicator of the difference in drinking patterns between males and females, both in the volume of alcohol consumed and in the number of heavy drinking occasions,” the authors wrote.

In breaking down the causes behind the deaths, the report said there was no stand-out category, but noted the gender-related differences. For women, cardiovascular disease categories were the most important, while for men, injuries sustained during bouts of heavy drinking were blamed for the most deaths.

Related: A Map to the World’s Drunkest Countries

WHO’s study found that drinking overall was stable in Africa, Europe and the U.S. and other Americas, but was rising in Southeast Asia and the West Pacific. It also shared case studies from the 196 WHO member nations where government action showed results. The Republic of Belarus, an Eastern European country bordered by Russia on the north and Ukraine on the south, set out to cut deaths, injuries and youthful drinking with steps that included banning alcohol marketing on television and radio except late at night.

That country’s action plan for 2011-2015 was to reduce alcohol-linked crime, the number of  young drinkers, booze dependence, road crashes, on-the-job injuries and alcohol poisoning. New policies included toughening laws against drunk driving, raising duty tax on some alcohol products, hiking fines and increasing law enforcement prosecution of home distilling.

“These measures have already delivered some rapid results, namely a decrease in adult per-capita consumption from 2011 to 2012 by 6.5 percent and from 2012 to 2013 by 11.4 percent, as well as a marked drop in criminal offenses committed while under the influence of alcohol,” the report stated.

WHO Report Key Findings:

  • Alcohol abuse is “a causal factor” in more than 200 disease and injury conditions.
  • Alcohol consumption causes death and disability relatively early in life. Twenty-five percent of the deaths attributable to alcohol were in the 20-to-39 age group.
  • Of the “global burden of disease and injury,” 5.1 percent is blamed on alcohol, which is measured in “disability-adjusted life years.”
  • There is a causal relationship between harmful use of alcohol and a range of mental and behavioral disorders, other non-communicable conditions as well as injuries.
  • Causal relationships have been established between harmful drinking and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis as well as the course of HIV/AIDS.
  • Beyond health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol brings significant social and economic losses to individuals and society at large.

Of the overall 3.3 million alcohol-related deaths, more than a third stemmed from cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The next highest was 17.1 percent due to unintentional injuries, followed closely by 16.2 percent due to gastrointestinal diseases.

“More needs to be done to protect populations from the negative health consequences of alcohol consumption,” said Oleg Chestnov, an expert on chronic disease and mental health for WHO, in the news announcement. There’s “no room for complacency,” he told Reuters.

One of the most dangerous forms of alcohol consumption is binge drinking, which happens when men consume five or more drinks in two hours and women have four or more.

“We found that worldwide, about 16 percent of drinkers engage in heavy episodic drinking … which is the most harmful to health,” Saxena said.

The report authors point out that it’s useful to not only measure quantity, but manner of drinking: “Notably, different drinking patterns give rise to very different health outcomes in population groups with the same level of consumption. [Patterns of Drinking Score or] PDS estimates are based on the following drinking attributes, which are weighted differentially “in order to provide the PDS on a scale from one to five:

  • The usual quantity of alcohol consumed per occasion
  • Festive drinking
  • Proportion of drinking events when drinkers get drunk
  • Proportion of drinkers who drink daily or nearly daily
  • Drinking with meals
  • Drinking in public places




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