Alcoholism & Addiction

Alcohol-Related Deaths on the Rise Globally

One in 25 deaths across the globe can be directly attributed to alcohol consumption, according to new research from the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

"These numbers are high," says Dr. Jurgen Rehm, one of the authors of the study published in this week’s edition of the Lancet. "And they’re only getting higher as more people drink in higher volumes and more frequent patterns."

Amy Minsky of Canwest News Service writes that the researchers attribute the recent global increase in part to greater consumption by women.

"Plus, production is more widespread and marketing has globalized," Rehm said, adding that the effect of alcohol on the human body is better understood and can be more easily linked to causes of death.

"The public doesn’t always recognize an alcohol-related death," he added. "It’s not like if your neighbor dies of lung cancer, and you assume he was a smoker. Nobody ever assumes that their neighbor’s breast cancer was because she was a drinker."

Most diseases that are commonly associated with alcoholism—such as cirrhosis of the liver—constitute a minority of alcohol-related deaths, said Rehm.

Alcohol can influence several hormonal systems in the body, causing various diseases such as mouth and throat, colorectal and breast cancers, as well as strokes.

A woman who has three drinks per day on average increases her risk of getting breast cancer by about 15 percent, said Rehm. "That means that (perhaps) only one in 20 cases of breast cancer is due to alcohol consumption. And that’s why the public ignores alcohol as a carcinogen."

The report noted alcohol consumption also leads to accidental, premature deaths.
"When you have more people drinking more alcohol, you get more people who are risk-prone," said Rehm. "You have more people on our highways, drunk driving, and more people drunk while snowmobiling or boating. Accidents and deaths will happen."

Separate data from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health published in 2006 found 3,892 deaths attributable to alcohol in Canada, or 1.8 percent of all Canadian deaths. The three biggest contributing factors were unintentional injuries, cancers and digestive diseases.

While the Canadian figure is lower than the world percentage, the global numbers are bolstered by areas such as Europe, where one in 10 deaths is directly attributable to alcohol, and Russia, where about one in seven deaths can be directly linked to alcohol.
The study found that globally, alcohol consumption worked out to about 12 units per person per week on average. A unit is comparable to a small can of beer, glass of wine or a one-ounce shot of liquor.

"But globally, the vast majority of adults abstain from liquor," said Rehm. "So the drinkers are actually drinking about twice as much."

The Canadian consumption is calculated at almost nine units per person per week. By contrast, in Europe it is 21.5 units per week.

"The public disregards a lot of what alcohol does to the system," said Rehm.

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