How harmful drinking alcohol can be to the health has been clear for years. And yet there is more alcohol consumption around the world. That is the conclusion of an international study published in the journal The Lancet. An analysis of data from 189 countries revealed that the consumption of alcohol by the world population increased by 70 percent between 1990 and 2017. Yet more than 40 percent of people worldwide are found to be total abstainers.
The cause is the increase in the population and a higher consumption per capita. But there are major regional differences. For example, while alcohol consumption is growing rapidly in China, India, and Vietnam, problematic drinking in Eastern European countries has clearly declined.
Road accidents, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer are just a few of the causes of death that are directly or indirectly related to drinking alcohol. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every 20th death in 2016 was due to this. Accordingly, excessive alcohol consumption should be reduced by 10% between April 2018 and 2025 – a goal that the study authors believe is likely to be missed.
“Instead, alcohol remains one of the major risk factors for predictable diseases and its effects are likely to increase compared to other risk factors,” said Jakob Manthey of the Institute for Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy (IKPP) of the TU Dresden in a statement before the investigation was released.
Analyzes and future forecasts
For the study, the research team analyzed data on alcohol consumption of people aged 15 to 99 from 189 countries for the years 1990, 2010 and 2017 and also predicted the development for the year 2030 from those data. The scientists found that in 2017 African and Middle Eastern countries had the least on drinking alcohol, while the highest consumption was in Central and Eastern Europe. However, the highest increase of 34 percent was found in economically rebounding Southeast Asia.
In Eastern Moldova, consumption (15 liters of pure alcohol per person aged 15 to 99) was the highest in 2017 and the lowest in predominantly Islamic Kuwait (less than 0.005 liters). The different figures and developments distract scientists from factors such as religion, health policy, and economic growth. Economic growth, in particular, appears to have an impact, as shown by China and India, where alcohol consumption has more than doubled between 1990 and 2017.
Overall, in 1990 every person between the ages of 15 and 99 drank on average the equivalent of 5.9 liters of pure alcohol. In 2017 drinking alcohol has increased to 6.5 liters. To clarify: half a liter of beer contains approximately 20 grams of pure alcohol.
Changing landscape in worldwide alcohol consumption
“Our study offers a comprehensive overview of the changing landscape in global alcohol consumption,” summarizes psychologist Manthey. “Before 1990, most alcohols was consumed in high-income countries in Europe.” However, this pattern has changed considerably, with strong declines in Eastern Europe and huge increases in various countries with an average income such as China, India, and Vietnam. “This trend is expected to continue until 2030 so that Europe will no longer have the highest alcohol consumption,” Manthey adds.
The study also found that the number of lifelong abstainers remained roughly stable (1990: 46 percent, 2017: 43 percent), just like the heavy drinkers (1990: 18.5 percent, 2017: 20 percent). The researchers suspect that these data will hardly change, but the amount of alcohol consumed will increase more than the number of drinkers – with associated health consequences.
In response to the study, Sarah Callinan, a specialist at La Trobe University in Australia, and Michael Livingston of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm warned that the study’s predictions should be treated with caution. For example, correct predictions of alcohol consumption and economic growth are always very difficult to make.
Countries with low and average incomes should adjust their addiction policy because it is likely that people will drink more in the future. Examples from high-income countries have shown that, for example, higher prices or a limitation of availability can be effective, write Callinan and Livingston. At the same time, prohibitions on advertising or restrictions are useful measures – including against the resistance of the industry.