Alcohol, Tobacco Dwarf Illicit Drugs in Human Health Toll

(CN) – Alcohol and tobacco use shaved more than a quarter of a billion years off our lives collectively in 2015 – and illicit drugs burned tens of millions more, according to a new study.

The report, published Friday in the journal Addiction, provides the most up-to-date information on alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use and the burden of death and disease that the chronic use of these substances can foster.

Tobacco smoking produced the biggest health burden, while illicit drug use did the least damage due to the relatively low number of people using, the study found.

Global estimates indicate that 15.2 percent of adults smoke tobacco, while one in five adults report having at least one instance of heavy alcohol use over the past month.

Europe recorded consistently greater alcohol consumption per capita – nearly 12 liters consumed per person – and a higher percentage of heavy consumption hovering around 50 percent.

Europeans also loved their cigarettes in 2015: 23.7 percent Central Europeans smoked daily, compared with 24.2 percent of Eastern Europeans and 20.9 percent in Western Europe.

Illicit drug use was far less common.

Estimates suggest less than 5 percent of people used cannabis in the past year, while cocaine, opioids and amphetamines were consumed far less frequently, with higher recorded use in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Combined, the U.S. and Canada had one of the highest levels of cannabis, opioid and cocaine dependence – 749, 650 and 301 per 100,000 people, respectively. Australia and New Zealand had the highest rate of amphetamine dependence – nearly 492 per 100,000 people – as well as high levels of cannabis, opioid and cocaine use dependence – 694, 510 and 161 per 100,000 people, respectively.

Some nations and regions, including Africa, Latin America and Asia, have limited or no data on substance use and the associated health burden. These are generally low- or middle-income nations that often have stringent drug policies and may experience significant political and social unrest. These nations require enhanced monitoring because they are risk of rapid surges in substance use and associated health burden, according to the report.

“Europeans proportionately suffered more but in absolute terms the mortality rate was greatest in low- and middle-income countries with large populations and where the quality of data was more limited,” the authors write.

“Better standardized and rigorous methods for data collection, collation and reporting are needed to assess more accurately the geographical and temporal trends in substance use and its disease burden.”

The team notes there are key limitations to the data, particularly for illicit drugs, but believe that assembling this information in one place will help governments and international agencies form policies to combat substance use.

The authors mainly obtained the data from the World Health Organization, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

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