WHO Says Alcohol an Overlooked Killer, Calls for More Action

Alcohol is “the world’s third largest risk factor for disease and disability,” and is responsible for nearly four percent of deaths worldwide – more than AIDS, violence or tuberculosis — according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2011.

More must be done worldwide to combat alcohol’s negative impact on health, WHO said in the press release.

Alcohol is a “causal factor in 60 types of diseases and injuries and a component cause in 200 others,” and is “associated with many serious social issues, including violence, child neglect and abuse, and absenteeism in the workplace,” according to the report on global alcohol consumption.

Furthermore, “the harmful use of alcohol remains a low priority in public policy, including in health policy. Many lesser health risks have higher priority,” according to the report.

“Many countries recognize the serious public health problems caused by the harmful use of alcohol and have taken steps to prevent the health and social burdens and treat those in need of care. But clearly much more needs to be done to reduce the loss of life and suffering associated with harmful alcohol use,” said Dr. Ala Alwan, WHO Assistant Director-General for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health.

Worldwide alcohol consumption averaged 6.13 liters of pure alcohol per person in 2005 and 9.4 liters in the United States. Although drinking is common, the majority of people do not drink, according to WHO. In 2005, almost two-thirds of women and nearly half of all men abstained entirely from drinking. 

The majority of deaths related to alcohol “result from injuries, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and liver cirrhosis,” according to the press release. Impacts vary significantly by population and by country. For example, only 1.1 percent of global female deaths can be attributed to alcohol, compared with 6.2 percent of male deaths. Alcohol accounts for 9 percent of deaths (or 320,000) among young people aged 15 to 29. In the Russian Federation and nearby countries, one in five men die from alcohol-related causes.

WHO stated that although an increasing number of countries have adopted policies to address the harmful use of alcohol since 1999 (the first year WHO reported on the issue), “many countries [still] have weak alcohol policies and prevention programs.”

In May 2010, WHO “Member States” endorsed a global strategy to address harmful alcohol use. Measures included alcohol taxes, limiting the number of outlets where it is sold, higher age limits for purchase, and addressing drunk driving. 

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