In the time it takes for that sip of pinot to hit your lips, someone is taking their last breath—an unfortunate but all too common consequence of worldwide drinking habits, according to a new World Health Organization release.
The figures are staggering too: 3.3 million—the amount of people who lost their lives to alcohol in 2012 alone—and 5.9—the percentage of global deaths blamed on booze. “This translates to about one death every 10 seconds,” says Shekhar Saxena, M.D., and director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the World Health Organization. [Tweet this news!]
But what it also translates to is that booze clearly isn’t without its risks: “This number of deaths compares to the deaths from many diseases we hear about much more often, like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and infectious diseases,” he says. Alcohol is a risk factor for those diseases—and can lead not just to addiction but also to more than 200 disorders, the report finds.
“This is a significant public health problem,” says Saxena. “The number of deaths remains very high, and it’s not coming down.”
In fact, it’s going up. Booze is cheap, which makes it more accessible to younger adults. Some countries only follow alcohol-related guidelines loosely too, making alcohol available to younger people. (European nations—where wine flows freely far under a legal drinking age—report the highest amount of alcohol consumption and the highest amount of alcohol-attributable deaths.) And drinking habits are worrisome.
Sixteen percent of those who drink, binge drink. And the report found that 50 percent of booze drank worldwide was sipped in the form of spirits, which are concentrated with much more alcohol than wine or beer. While the WHO report found that the average person slurps down 6.2 liters of pure alcohol a year—about 13.5 grams a day (comparable to the amount in your standard drink, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)—really, that number is higher. More than half of the population doesn’t drink, which means that for those who do, they take in more like 17 liters—closer to three drinks a day and “about 45 bottles of whiskey, 150 bottles of wine, or more than 1,000 cans of beer” a year, says Saxena.
On a day-to-day level, that may seem like no big deal. Why would it? “Our society associates the end of the workweek or day with, ‘OK, let’s go have some drinks,’” says Michael Fingerhood, M.D., division director at Johns Hopkins’ Bayview Medical Center’s Center for Chemical Dependence.
And on occasion, in moderation, this likely isn’t a big deal, he says. But here’s why it matters: As a woman, you’re at an increased risk of alcohol-related side effects. Due to differences in metabolism and estrogen, alcohol reaches peak levels more quickly in ladies, Fingerhood says. (That’s in part why binge drinking is categorized as four drinks for women, five for men.) Given the same amount of booze as the guy next to you, you are more likely to become intoxicated, lose your judgment, and be at a higher risk for cirrhosis, or liver scarring, Fingerhood says.
But the cost of drinking isn’t just a toxic effect on the liver or a slew of chronic diseases, it’s also that even a small amount affects your life: More than 50 percent of fatal motor vehicle accidents in this country have to do with alcohol, and per capita intake of alcohol, there are many more DUIs and car accidents related to drinking in the U.S. than in the U.K., says Fingerhood. Every hour, a drunk driver kills one and injures 20 on U.S. roads. A lot of these incidents involve young drinkers.
It’s that excessive drinking is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of mortality in this country—and that each year, millions visit American emergency rooms and doctor’s offices for drinking-related issues. It’s that drinking is normalized across college campuses, on city streets on Saturday nights, and in the lyrics of our favorite songs.
So what do we do?
“If someone says, ‘I have a glass of wine every night with dinner—is that a problem?’ I would say ‘No,’” Fingerhood says. After all, in low doses, all forms of alcohol appear to have protective effects, researchers generally agree. “But you have to balance everything,” Fingerhood adds. Start by assessing two factors: the what and the how. “The amount of alcohol consumed is of great concern, but so are the harmful varieties of the alcohol being consumed (sticking to the hard stuff) and the way in which it is being consumed (the binging),” Saxena urges. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends no more than three drinks in a day and no more than seven in a week.