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WHO report: 2.6 million people died from alcohol in 2019

Written by on June 27, 2024

(NEW YORK) — A new report by the World Health Organization, which looked broadly at global substance use for people 15 years and older, shows over three million people died from substance use in 2019 and 400 million people live with substance use disorders, which can have a number of negative health impacts.

“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. It places a heavy burden on families and communities, increasing exposure to accidents, injuries and violence,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press release Tuesday.

According to the report, 2.6 million deaths were due to alcohol use and 206 million people had alcohol dependence. About two-thirds of deaths due to alcohol were among men and the highest number of deaths were in the European and African region, while current consumption was common among teenagers.

“On a global scale, [alcohol] is one of the most widely used drugs. Definitely having a negative impact on health,” Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News chief medical correspondent, said on ABC’s Good Morning America on Wednesday.

Rates of alcohol deaths have declined since 2010, but the number of people who are dying from alcohol consumption “remains unacceptably high,” according to the report. Many of these deaths were attributed to chronic diseases due to alcohol such as heart disease and cancer.

“Alcohol is now considered a class one carcinogen, meaning known to cause cancer, on par with asbestos and tobacco,” Ashton said.

Younger people in particular are being negatively impacted by alcohol use

The highest percent of alcohol-attributable deaths in 2019 were among young people between the ages of 20 and 39 years old, and about 25% of all 15- to 19-year-olds said they currently drink alcohol. The highest rates of daily consumption in this age group were among teens in the European region and the Americas, where about 46% and 44% said they currently drink alcohol, respectively.

In addition to leading to alcohol use disorder, there are numerous negative health effects from moderate to heavy alcohol consumption, such as liver and heart disease, certain cancers and an increased risk of injuries, according to NIH MedlinePlus.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol use is consuming two drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less a day for women. A standard drink is 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits or liquor.

Binge drinking for men is about five or more drinks within a few hours or about four or more drinks within a few hours for women. Heavy alcohol use is defined for men as having more than five drinks on any day or more than 15 drinks per week, and for women, is defined as having more than four drinks on any day or more than eight drinks per week.

“We have to really come to terms with the fact that there is no safe amount of alcohol and particularly for women,” Ashton said. “When you talk about breast cancer, even light alcohol consumption, less than one drink a day, associated causally with a 15% increased risk of breast cancer … that is stark.”

While men tend to drink more alcohol than women, women tend to metabolize alcohol at a slower rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This slower absorption makes women more susceptible to the negative effects of alcohol. Alcohol also affects the heart differently in men than in women. The CDC says that women who binge drink are at an increased risk of heart damage at lower levels of alcohol use and over a shorter period of time compared to men.

The report called for urgent action to reduce deaths due to alcohol and substance use through community awareness and engagement, the health care system and national policies.

“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,” Ghebreyesus said this week.

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