Here’s a shocker to mull over the next time you sip your glass of heart-healthy cabernet: alcohol consumption causes one in 25 deaths worldwide, according to new research. The study, published in The Lancet, found that the mortality rate in Europe and particularly in Eastern Europe, was actually far higher, with one out of every 10 deaths directly related to alcohol. Alcohol also causes up to six percent of all disability worldwide.
According to study director Jürgen Rehm of the University of Toronto, alcohol-related mortality rates have risen dramatically even since 2000, and most of the spike comes as a result of more women drinking. He says that, “Alcohol consumption, particularly among women, is linked to economic growth. In countries like the U.K. and Norway, you have women drinking over 30% of [all the alcohol consumed]. In India, on the other extreme, women consume less than 5%. The higher the wealth of a country, the higher the percentage of women drinking alcohol.”
The study found that alcohol consumption surpasses smoking as a mortality risk factor in 27 emerging countries worldwide, and in fact, is the number one risk factor in these nations. The alcohol-related deaths come about as the result of accidents, toxicity, and alcohol-related health conditions including certain cancers, cardiovascular problems, and liver disease. Cirrhosis and other liver conditions are the most common single cause of death, followed by car accidents, which may explain why alcohol-related disease and death strikes young people more often than old.
While worldwide, most people don’t drink at all, in the US, the average adult consumes 11 drinks weekly; in Europe, that figure jumps to 13. Remember — that’s an average, meaning it also includes those who don’t drink at all. Looked at another way, in the US, the average adult drinks 2.5 gallons of pure Ethanol annually, and in Europe, that number is 3.1 gallons, with many people consuming a whole lot more.
While the antioxidant benefit of red wine still gets airplay, worldwide alcohol is now considered the threat that tobacco was considered a decade ago. And also, some holes have started appearing in the antioxidant hype. I wrote recently about the fact that along with all those antioxidants, the typical glass of wine may contain up to 200 times the amount of heavy metals considered safe, plus a heaping dose of pesticides. I’ve also written recently about the suspected links between drinking and cancer. In fact, a recent study found that women who drink just a glass of wine daily (considerably less than the US average) have a 12 percent increase in breast cancer, a 22 percent rise in laryngeal cancer, and significant increases in cancers of the rectum, liver, and mouth.
But again, in the US, the problem pales next to the alcohol-mortality issue in places like Russia, where, according to a concomitant study, alcohol claimed 52 percent of all deaths of those aged 15-54. That study examined records of 49,000 deaths between 1990 and 2001. While the authorities blame adulterated liquor and industrial alcohol for the bulk of the deaths, the statistics show that the average Russian drinks twice as much as the citizens of any other country in the world, and the drink of choice typically is pure vodka. Professor David Zaridze, lead author of the study, noted that given the three million Russians who have died alcohol-related deaths since 1987, “This loss is similar to that of a war.”
Despite these gloomy reports, the authorities remain upbeat. “Today, we know more than ever about which strategies can effectively and cost-effectively control alcohol-related harms,” Dr. Rehm said. “Provided that our public policy makers act on these practical strategies expeditiously, we could see an enormous impact in reducing damage.”
Topmost among those strategies, according to Dr. Rehm, is raising the price of alcohol. He points out that Italy now has the lowest rate of alcohol consumption in Europe, a reflection of escalating wine prices and a teetering economy. He isn’t a huge fan of alcohol-treatment programs as a solution, because they only help those suffering from severe alcohol-abuse, but don’t help people with alcohol-related breast cancer or other diseases indirectly resulting from drinking. “The solution can only be to reduce the overall amount of drinking,” he says, and again, he notes that the price-tag may be key.
On the other hand, it should be noted that if the pricing gets too high because of extraordinary taxes, you would probably be looking at a repeat of the prohibition era, with bathtub gin flourishing as tax-free, illegal alcohol, substantially undercutting the legal variety. Can you say, “Smirnoff Cartel?”
In the meantime, the existing drug cartels (Wyeth Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson and Johnson, etc.) are trying to cash in by cooking up pharmaceutical interventions to kill the drinking bug. A drug called Topiramate got rave reviews for curbing alcohol addiction after clinical trials last year and is currently pending FDA approval. A number of other drugs also are under development. The pharmaceutical community, it seems, would like to get its hands on a piece of that alcohol pie. Let’s just hope the side effects of whatever they come up with aren’t as toxic as the drinking itself.