Just a Beer, a Glass of Wine, What's the Harm?


Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 05:57 a.m. DST, 15 May 2014

"Bourbon Please" Photo by: Thomas Hawk

GENEVA, Switzerland -- The recently published Global status report on alcohol and health, 2014 is an extensive study conducted by the World Health Organization. The 378 page document is a well-coordinated look at the international consumption of alcohol and the implications for individuals and communities.

Their findings are sobering. Researchers conclude that in 2012, 3.3 million people died from alcohol or alcohol-related incidents, amounting to 5.9% of deaths during that year.

Alcohol remains a ubiquitous global indulgence and a pervasive threat to public health everywhere. WHO meticulously dissects worldwide data according to gender, age, socioeconomic status, and nationality to provide cultural context to the statistics. Among the notable trends--men imbibe more often and more recklessly than women, wealth and alcohol use are positively correlated, and the religion observed in a given area is a strong consumption predictor.

Of the 3.3 million reported dead in 2012, alcohol played a role in 7.6% of male fatalities, and contributed to only 4% of female deaths. Higher rates of temperance among women explain this twofold gap. In Africa, 40.2% of males aged 15 and over are at least occasional drinkers, compared to only 19.6% of females. Similarly, 7.4% of men and 3.3% of women consume alcohol in the WHO designated eastern Mediterranean region. The greatest disparity between the drinking habits of sisters and brothers occurs in southeast Asia region, where men imbibe at more than four times the rate of women.

When controlling all other variables, age factors heavily into international trends of alcohol use. While Canada, France, Germany and the United Kingdom are home to the highest incidence of binge drinking among young people age 15-19, these tendencies wear off as nationals enter adulthood. In fact, the overall populations of France and Germany practice among the "least risky" drinking habits in the world. Data that includes older generations in Canada and the United Kingdom reflect more acceptable alcohol usage as well. Russia is the only country where adolescents are more responsible drinkers than their seniors.

Another valuable lens in the report is the change in global alcohol consumption from 2006-2010. During that time, countries like China, Peru and India have seen significant increases in intoxication rates. At the same time, other nations have weaned off the habit. Among them are Venezuela, South Africa and Ethiopia. The eastern Mediterranean region has remained largely alcohol free as Islamic populations widely avoid the practice.

Responsible alcohol use is key for the wellbeing of individuals and aggregate communities. Serious outcomes such as fetal alcohol syndrome, cirrhosis of the liver and a host of cancers are possible in regular users. But data compiled by WHO also indicate several other concerns. Of all global suicides, 22% are connected to alcohol use. 16% of traffic fatalities involve inebriation. And over one out of every 7 drownings are alcohol-related. According to the WHO report, over half a million deaths in 2012 were due to unintentional injuries incurred while intoxicated.

The investigation is not wholly dismal. Authors praise various nations for their preventative efforts aimed at limiting harm due to alcohol. For instance, South Africa created a national committee to bring Ministers of Health, Correctional Services and Education together to address drunk-driving and rehabilitate individuals struggling with alcohol addiction. An initiative to limit crimes connected to alcohol and address the dangers of alcohol poisoning is underway in Belarus, which has already proven largely effective. And the report puts Mongolia in the limelight for their efforts to bring together the president, alcohol distributors and various organizations to create an "Alcohol Free Mongolia."

In addition to these measures, WHO advocates community mobilization to combat personal and community overindulgence. Moreover, the authors also argue for forceful solutions such as additional taxes, further governmental regulation and a crackdown on the ubiquitous production of unregulated, black market beverages. These ideas are as beneficial for the immune system of society as they are the organs of the individual. But all the while, responsible consumption begins with the well-educated and accountable individual.

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