Wealthier, Educated Women and Poor, Uneducated Men Drink More Alcohol
The findings of the report shine a spotlight on the highest-risk groups for harmful drinking, as well as both underlining the harmful effects of drinking—on the individual and society as a whole—and suggesting strategies for reducing the impact of alcohol on society. The report, titled Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use, offers a wide range of insights into drinking around the world.
Harm Caused by Alcohol
The report is unflinching in its discussion of the harm caused by alcohol around the world. It stresses that alcohol affects over 200 diseases and types of injury, with the vast majority being negative impacts with a small minority being positive. The OECD adds that alcohol use is among the leading causes of death and disability around the world, rising from the eighth-leading cause in 1990 to the fifth-leading cause in 2010. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing many conditions, including strokes, liver disease, high blood pressure, cancers of the mouth, head, neck, breast and bowel, infertility, depression and pancreatitis.
In particular, the risks to people other than the drinker are outlined in the report, such as traffic accidents related to drunk driving, violence linked to intoxication and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, with the former two being particularly associated with heavy drinking in younger adults. Finally, there are effects on society as a whole due to lost productivity, healthcare costs and the impacts of crime. According to the report, productivity losses total around 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in most countries.
Trends in Drinking; Groups Most at Risk
Overall, the average annual alcohol consumption in OECD countries—including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea and many European countries—is the equivalent of 9.1 liters of pure alcohol per person, and this is expected to be an underestimate. This has actually decreased by 2.5 percent over the past 20 years, but some individual countries have still seen an increase in consumption. In the included countries, most of the alcohol consumed is by the 20 percent of the population that drinks most heavily—in other words, those struggling with alcohol consumption contribute much more to these figures than “social” or light drinkers.
Hazardous drinking (drinking too much overall) and binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks in one episode of drinking—although the definition varies by country) have increased in many included countries, particularly among women and young people. Additionally, drinking among youth—aged 15 and under—is on the increase, with the number who hadn’t consumed alcohol decreasing from 44 percent to 30 percent of boys and from 50 percent to 31 percent of girls from 2000 to 2010. The number of children who’ve experienced drunkenness rose from 30 percent to 43 percent of boys and from 26 percent to 41 percent of girls over the same period.
Generally speaking, people with higher socioeconomic status and who were more educated were more likely to drink, but there were some important variations by gender. For men, less education and lower socioeconomic status were associated with more risky drinking, but for women it was more in line with the broader trend, with higher education and socioeconomic status predicting drinking habits.
How Can We Reduce Harmful Drinking?
The study uses computer simulations to determine the effectiveness of various approaches in reducing the rates of harmful drinking, specifically looking at the predicted effect in Germany, the Czech Republic and Canada. The simulation suggests that systematic provision of “brief interventions” (a short-term psychological treatment method) for alcohol use could have significant benefits of health and life expectancy, and that increasing alcohol taxes so the cost of drinks rose by 10 percent would have similarly positive impacts.
The OECD argues that ideally such policies and preventive measures should target heavy drinkers, but there are few ways to do this effectively, with physicians being identified as one of the only approaches to target those most at-risk. Wider-ranging approaches, like raising alcohol prices and limiting the advertising of alcohol, could also help tackle harmful drinking.
We Can Minimize the Harms
The core conclusion from the study is that while some positive trends are emerging—for example, the broad decline in alcohol consumption—problems remain in some subpopulations and some countries. These findings can be used to develop targeted prevention approaches, and regulatory approaches can help continue the positive steps that have been made to reduce drinking in the overall population. Make no mistake, alcohol is a drug, and a dangerous one at that, and countries around the world need to continue taking steps to reduce the disease, disability and death caused by heavy drinking.