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Psychoactive Drugs Tobacco, Alcohol, and Illicit Substances

2. How do psychoactive drugs affect health?

  • 2.1 What is the health burden attributable to psychoactive drugs?
  • 2.2 What main harmful effects are caused by psychoactive drug use?

2.1 What is the health burden attributable to psychoactive drugs?

Psychoactive drugs impose a substantial health burden on society. Damage to human life is often described in terms of loss of “disability-adjusted life years” (DALYs). This measure takes into account the number of years lost due to premature deaths as well as the years spent living with disability.

Worldwide, psychoactive drugs are responsible for 8.9% of all DALYs lost. The main impact is not due to illicit drugs (0.8% of DALYs) but to alcohol (4%) and tobacco (4.1%).

The health burden attributable to tobacco and alcohol is particularly high for men in developed countries, mainly Europe and North America. Indeed, tobacco and alcohol combined are considered responsible for over a third of all male deaths in developed countries (26.3% are attributed to tobacco and 8% to alcohol). Moreover, the impact of tobacco is expected to increase in other parts of the world. More...

Table 3. Percentage of total global mortality and DALYs attributable to tobacco, alcohol and illicit substances

2.2 What main harmful effects are caused by psychoactive drug use?

Mostly, people use psychoactive drugs because they expect some benefit, either getting pleasure or avoiding pain. However, using these drugs can cause harm in the short and longer term.

The main harmful effects of drug use are as follows:

  Short-term Long-term
Health effects Deaths and injuries caused by driving after drinking alcohol or after other drug use,

other accidents, suicide,

assaults (at least for alcohol)

overdose (for drugs such as opioids and alcohol).
For alcohol this includes liver cirrhosis.

For cigarette smoking this includes lung cancer, emphysema and other chronic illnesses.

For heroin taken by injection and through the sharing of needles, this includes the possibility of contracting HIV or hepatitis B and C.
Social problems For example a sudden break in a relationship or an arrest. For example neglecting work and family duties.

More...


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