Context - Alcohol is not an ordinary commodity. It has been part of human civilization for thousands of years, and while it is linked with connotations of pleasure and sociability in the minds of many, its use also has harmful consequences.
What are the impacts of alcohol consumption on human health, society and the economy?
Latest update: 15 March 2006
1. Introduction - How many people are affected by alcohol?
Half a pint of beer on bar table
About 2 billion people across the world consume alcoholic drinks.
Alcohol consumption can
harm health as well as social relations, but the nature and the severity
of the effects depend on both the amount of alcohol consumed over time,
and the pattern of drinking.
Possible injuries, alcohol
dependence, and chronic
diseases can lead to losses in quality of life and to premature
Around 76 million currently have
alcohol use disorders, such as
excessive drinking and alcohol
2. What are the general patterns of alcohol consumption?
Worldwide, adults consume on average 5 litres of pure
alcohol from beer, wine and
spirits per year. The average alcohol consumption is highest in Europe,
followed by the Americas and by Africa. It tends to increase with
economic development. However, consumption remains low in some regions
where the majority of the
population is Muslim.
National preferences for certain types of drinks vary greatly. For
instance, beer is preferred in several European and African countries,
wine is preferred in the wine producing countries of Europe, and spirits
are preferred in Eastern Europe, Asia and some island states. However,
consumers are increasingly opening up to beverages other than those
normally produced in their country.
Not all alcohol consumption is
reflected in official national records or surveys, for instance due to
home production and unrecorded trade. As a result, the national alcohol
consumption is often largely underestimated , particularly the
developing world and Eastern Europe.
Traditionally made local beverages are very popular, particularly in
Africa, as they tend to be cheaper than factory-made drinks. Because of
the lack of controls, they can contain harmful substances that may cause
death, blindness or illnesses. However, these traditional beverages
generally have a lower alcohol
content and play an important economic and social role in the local
3. What are the drinking habits in various countries?
Meal with wine
Alcohol consumption can be
measured by analysing production and sales statistics and by asking
people about their drinking habits. Such surveys have mostly been
conducted in developed countries. They can reveal
heavy drinking episodes which
would go unnoticed in overall statistics.
The share of people who abstain from drinking
alcohol can vary greatly,
ranging from a few percent in some European countries to nearly the
entire population in predominantly
Muslim countries such as Egypt. Across cultures, more women abstain from
alcohol than men.
Heavy drinking is a drinking
pattern that goes beyond what is considered moderate or socially
acceptable. In Colombia and Georgia, for instance, up to 50% of all male
drinkers are considered heavy drinkers. However, comparisons between
surveys are difficult because they use different criteria.
Heavy episodic drinking (also
called binge drinking) refers to
drinking occasions that lead to
drunkenness. In some countries,
heavy episodic drinking is common among both men and women but generally
it is more frequent among men.
Individuals are alcohol dependent
when obtaining and consuming
alcohol takes priority over many
other aspects of their lives that they previously considered more
important. Alcohol dependence is
consistently higher among men than among women. In some countries,
alcohol dependence affects more
than 10% of the population.
Getting drunk has gained a
disproportionate cultural importance among young people and the use of
alcohol now seriously
threatens the health and well-being of many of them.
Episodic heavy drinking is
becoming increasingly frequent, particularly among boys. In Denmark, for
instance, more than half of 11 to 15 year olds are considered heavy
4. What are the health effects of alcohol consumption?
Alcohol can cause physical,
mental and social effects, which are determined by both the amount of
alcohol consumed and the pattern of drinking.
A series of diseases are entirely caused by
alcohol, such as
alcohol dependence and
alcoholic liver cirrhosis. Alcohol
consumption also clearly increases the risk of some
cancers (including lip, tongue,
throat, oesophagus, liver, and breast
cancer). Depending on the
drinking pattern, alcohol can have a damaging or a protective role in
the development of diseases of the heart and blood vessels.
is at risk when the mother consumes
alcohol during pregnancy.
Effects range from slow growth to birth defects and mental retardation.
Maternal drinking can also cause spontaneous abortion or premature
In comparison with those who do not drink
alcohol at all, low to moderate
alcohol consumption can have some health benefits,
particularly when combined with meals. It may reduce the risk of a
common type of stroke,
coronary heart diseases, as
well as some types of diabetes.
However, higher levels of alcohol consumption may actually increase the
risks of developing these conditions.
Individuals often suffer from alcohol problems in combination with
Individuals often suffer from
alcohol problems in combination
and alcohol can play a role in causing depression. The higher
the amount consumed, the greater the number of symptoms of depression.
However, these symptoms tend to decrease or disappear during alcohol
Alcohol increases the risks of
physical injury mainly from road accidents, but also
from falls, fires, violence, etc. The risk of traffic accidents
increases with the level of alcohol in the blood, even at relatively low
levels. Alcohol consumption increases the likelihood of aggressive
behaviour, impairs the drinkers’ ability to think and makes them more
prone to emotional responses.
Overall, more life years are lost due to
alcohol than “saved” through
its beneficial health effects on the heart and blood vessels (when
consumed moderately). In developed countries alcohol is the third most
important risk factor for disease only exceeded by tobacco and high
blood pressure. In developing countries with high
mortality rates other risk
factors such as undernutrition and unsafe sex are more important.
5. What social and economic problems are linked to alcohol use?
The social and economic problems of
alcohol use not only affect
those who drink but also those around them, and society as a
Alcohol abuse can cause social and economic problems
In the work environment alcohol
can lead to absences, work accidents, and lower performance, which, in
turn, may lead to unemployment. This has a cost for the employee,
employer, and the social security system.
Drinking can impair how a person performs as a parent or partner.
Drinking can lead a person to be violent, to spend more time away from
home, to leave other family members destitute, or to cause them anxiety,
fear and depression. Parental
drinking, both during pregnancy and after birth, can have lasting
physical or psychological effects on children.
The economic consequences of
alcohol consumption can be severe,
particularly for the poor. This is not only due to the amount spent on
drinks, but also to lost wages, and to medical and other
Violence between husbands and wives often occurs in situations when
one or both partners have been drinking.
Heavy drinking has been
strongly linked to violence between partners and to a lesser extent to
violence towards others, possibly because proximity increases the
opportunities for violence. However, further data is needed to clarify
the complex role of alcohol in such
Alcohol consumption imposes
economic and social costs on society as a whole. Estimating these costs
is often difficult, but it can help improve policies aiming to reduce
harm from alcohol. The few national estimates that have been made so far
indicate the significant cost of alcohol use to society.
Alcohol is not an ordinary
commodity. While it carries connotations of pleasure and sociability in
the minds of many, harmful consequences of its use are diverse and
In order to reduce the harm caused by
alcohol, policies need to take
into account amounts consumed and patterns of drinking, as well as
varying situations in different societies. For example, avoiding
drinking and driving can help prevent injuries.
Worldwide, alcohol is expected to
take an increasing toll on lives and communities. Indeed, more and more
alcohol is consumed per person in countries such as China and India, and
young people are adopting more harmful and risky drinking
National monitoring systems are needed to keep track of
alcohol consumption and its
consequences, in order to raise awareness and enable debate amongst the
public and policy-makers.