Alcohol, Tobacco Greatest Global Promoters of Addiction, and It’s Not Even Close

Global statistics confirm that billions of human beings are currently using alcohol and tobacco, cementing their status as humanity’s runaway drugs of choice. In fact, if we were to add up the number of people taking some type of illegal drug, it wouldn’t come close to matching either the number drinking alcohol (nearly 2 billion) or the number using tobacco products (more than 1 billion). Even marijuana, which seems to be growing in both acceptance and popularity, is only used by about 10 percent of the number who drink alcohol. And not a single other drug is used by even 1 percent of the world’s population, which is somewhat shocking given the massive amount of time and money that has been spent trying to squelch the illegal drug trade. The facts about global substance abuse are discussed in “Global Statistics on Addictive Behaviours: 2014 Status Report,” published in the May edition of the journal Addiction. The article was authored by researchers from the University of Adelaide (Australia), who scrutinized data obtained from national and regional sources as well as international organizations involved in the study of drug, alcohol and tobacco use, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The goal of the researchers was to correlate statistics from across the globe to gain a greater understanding of the depth and scope of the planet’s collective substance abuse problem. Nothing revealed in this latest study comes as a surprise, but its results do show just how deeply embedded alcohol and tobacco are in the social and cultural spheres of virtually every nation and region on Earth. The same cannot be said about marijuana, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy or any other illicit drug traded on the black market. Despite their reputations, all are niche drugs that have only managed to gain a foothold in certain countries and/or in specific subcultures. From an American perspective, it may seem odd to refer to marijuana as a “niche” drug, but on a global basis, just 3.5 percent of the population used pot at some point in 2014. And none of the other more infamous substances are major factors on the global drug scene either, although all of them do continue to claim victims and do represent a serious threat to public health in a number of locations. But on a worldwide basis, alcohol and tobacco are the undisputed kings. In 2014, 43 percent of the world’s adult citizens (those over age 15) had consumed alcohol within the past 12 months, while 22.5 percent had used a tobacco product within that same time period. Among smokers, addiction levels are absurdly high, since nicotine is inherently addictive and the most commonly consumed form of tobacco is loaded with it. Alcoholism is a stealth disease that catches its victims by surprise, and many who succumb to problem drinking started out as light-to-moderate drinkers. The University of Adelaide analysis reveals that 4.9 percent of the world’s adult population registered positive for an alcohol use disorder in 2014, which means there are about 240 million adult problem drinkers currently struggling with a serious, life-threatening and life-altering disease. This represents about 11 percent of the drinking population, or one out of every nine. Binge drinking is dangerous because of its association with violence, accidents and impaired driving, and globally this practice is disturbingly common. In 2014, 13 percent of adults admitted to drinking to the point of heavy intoxication at least once within the previous month, and naturally this number would rise substantially if respondents had been asked about their drinking behavior within the past year (which is how other drinking statistics were obtained). While alcohol and tobacco use are ubiquitous, men imbibe and indulge far more frequently than women. As a consequence, more than five times as many men are addicted to alcohol, while four-and-a-half times as many men use tobacco products on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the number of women drinking and smoking has been rising in recent years, although we are still far from achieving parity in this dubious realm of activity.

Alcoholism, Nicotine Addiction and the Future

All of the premature illness and death associated with alcohol and tobacco use is, in theory, preventable. But with drinkers and smokers numbering in the billions, the overall size of the public health challenge is staggering. Global statistics aside, individual nations are largely on their own as they search for solutions to substance abuse problems, which in some cases include a significant amount of abuse of other drugs (like prescription painkillers in the United States, for example). But that makes each country a possible source for innovation. Each is a separate laboratory where various approaches can be tried and the results shared with governments, treatment experts and non-profit organizations around the world. Some of that is already happening, but of course much more will need to be done before the menace of substance abuse and addiction can be reduced to a manageable level.

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