Alcohol is a psychoactive substance with addictive properties that has been used for centuries in many cultures. Alcoholism is a major cause of disease and has significant social and economic consequences.
Alcohol abuse can also cause harm to others, including family members, friends, coworkers, and strangers.
More than 200 diseases, injuries, and other health conditions are linked to alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing mental and behavioural disorders, including alcohol dependence and major noncommunicable diseases such as liver cirrhosis, some cancers, and cardiovascular disease.
Unintentional and intentional injuries, such as those caused by car accidents, violence, and suicide, account for a significant portion of the disease burden caused by alcohol consumption. Alcohol-related fatalities are more common in younger age groups.
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There is a link between harmful drinking and the occurrence or outcome of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
An expectant mother’s consumption of alcohol may result in fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and pre-term birth complications.
Factors influencing alcohol consumption and the harm caused by alcohol
Several individual and societal factors have been identified that affect the levels and patterns of alcohol consumption and the magnitude of alcohol-related problems in populations.
Societal factors include economic development, culture, social norms, alcohol availability, and alcohol policy implementation and enforcement. Poorer societies suffer more negative health effects and social harm due to a given level and pattern of drinking.
Age, gender, family circumstances, and socioeconomic status are all individual factors. Although no single risk factor is dominant, the more vulnerabilities a person has, the more likely the person will develop alcohol-related problems due to alcohol consumption. Poorer people suffer more health and social consequences from alcohol consumption than more affluent people.
The total volume of alcohol consumed and the pattern of drinking, particularly those associated with episodes of heavy drinking, greatly influence the impact of alcohol consumption on chronic and acute health outcomes.
The context of drinking is essential in alcohol-related harm, particularly alcohol intoxication. Alcohol consumption can influence the occurrence of diseases, injuries, and other health conditions, their outcomes, and how they change over time.
There are gender differences in alcohol-related mortality and morbidity and alcohol consumption levels and patterns. Alcohol-related deaths among men account for 7.7% of all global deaths, compared to 2.6% of all deaths among women. In 2016, total alcohol consumption per capita among male and female drinkers worldwide was 19.4 litres of pure alcohol for males and 7.0 litres for females.
Reducing the burden of harmful alcohol use
Alcohol-related health, safety, and socioeconomic problems can be reduced if governments develop and implement appropriate policies.
Policymakers are encouraged to implement proven effective and cost-effective strategies. These are some examples:
regulating alcoholic beverage marketing (notably to young people); regulating and restricting alcohol availability; enacting appropriate drink-driving policies; reducing demand through taxation and pricing mechanisms; raising awareness of the health and social problems caused by harmful alcohol use for individuals and society at large; ensuring support for effective alcohol policies; providing accessible and affordable treatment for people
The WHO’s response
WHO prioritizes the development, implementation, and evaluation of cost-effective interventions for harmful alcohol use, as well as the creation, compilation, and dissemination of scientific information on alcohol use and dependence, as well as the health and social consequences of these behaviours.
The Global Strategy to reduce harmful alcohol use, adopted by WHO Member States in 2010, reflects the international agreement that reducing harmful alcohol use and the associated health and social burden is a public health priority. The Strategy provides action guidance at all levels, including ten recommended policy options and interventions for national action to reduce harmful alcohol use, as well as the main components for a global movement to support and complement activities at the country level.
The evidence on the cost-effectiveness of policy options and interventions undertaken in the context of the Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases 2013-2020 provides a new set of enabling and targeted recommended actions to reduce harmful alcohol use. The most cost-effective measures, or so-called best buys, include raising alcoholic beverage taxes, enacting and enforcing bans or comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising exposure across multiple types of media, and enacting and enforcing regulations on retailed alcohol availability.
With increased awareness of the impact of alcohol consumption on global health and an increase in international frameworks for action, there has been a significant increase in demand for global information on alcohol consumption and alcohol-attributable and alcohol-related harm, as well as related policy responses. WHO created the Global Information System on Alcohol and Health (GISAH) to dynamically present data on alcohol consumption levels and patterns, alcohol-related health and social consequences, and policy responses at all levels.
To reduce harmful alcohol use in line with the SDG 2030 agenda and the WHO Global Monitoring Framework for Noncommunicable Diseases, countries must work together, effective global governance is required, and all relevant stakeholders must be engaged. Alcohol’s adverse health and social consequences can be mitigated by effective collaboration.
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