One in 25 deaths across the globe can be directly attributed to alcohol consumption, according to new research from the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
"These numbers are high," says Dr. Jurgen Rehm, one of the authors of the study published in this week's edition of the Lancet. "And they're only getting higher as more people drink in higher volumes and more frequent patterns."
Researchers attribute the recent global increase in part to greater consumption by women.
"Plus, production is more widespread and marketing has globalized," he added.
Rehm also said the effect of alcohol on the human body is better understood and can be more easily linked to causes of death.
"The public doesn't always recognize an alcohol-related death," he added. "It's not like if your neighbour dies of lung cancer, and you assume he was a smoker. Nobody ever assumes that their neighbour's breast cancer was because she was a drinker."
Most diseases the public associates with alcoholism — such as cirrhosis of the liver — constitute a minority of alcohol-related deaths, said Rehm.
Alcohol can influence several hormonal systems in the body, causing various diseases such as mouth and throat, colorectal and breast cancers, as well as strokes.
A woman who has three drinks per day on average increases her risk of getting breast cancer by about 15 per cent, said Rehm. "That means that (perhaps) only one in 20 cases of breast cancer is due to alcohol consumption. And that's why the public ignores alcohol as a carcinogen."
The report noted alcohol consumption also leads to accidental, premature deaths.
"When you have more people drinking more alcohol, you get more people who are risk-prone," said Rehm. "You have more people on our highways, drunk driving, and more people drunk while snowmobiling or boating. Accidents and deaths will happen."
Separate data from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health published in 2006 found 3,892 deaths attributable to alcohol in Canada, or 1.8 per cent of all Canadian deaths. The three biggest contributing factors were unintentional injuries, cancers and digestive diseases.
While the Canadian figure is lower than the world percentage, the global numbers are bolstered by areas such as Europe, where one in 10 deaths is directly attributable to alcohol, and Russia, where about one in seven deaths can be directly linked to alcohol.
The study published in Lancet this week found that globally, alcohol consumption worked out to about 12 units per person per week on average. A unit is comparable to a small can of beer, glass of wine or a one-ounce shot of liquor.
"But globally, the vast majority of adults abstain from liquor," said Rehm. "So the drinkers are actually drinking about twice as much."
The Canadian consumption is calculated at almost nine units per person per week. By contrast, in Europe it is 21.5 unit per week.
"The public disregards a lot of what alcohol does to the system," said Rehm.
But whatever happened to the adage of a glass of wine being good for the heart?
While that still holds true, Rehm said, people simply don't drink in a way that benefits the body. The study showed more people are binge drinking, instead of spreading consumption out.
"If you drink one drink — and I really mean one drink, not one bottle — you will benefit your heart," he said. But, Rehm warned, even those who drink light and responsibly need to weigh the benefits.
"There are benefits to drinking," said Rehm. "We have good evidence for that. Unfortunately, for our populations, they are less relevant because no one seems to care to drink at those low levels, which would actually do you a little bit of good."
By Amy Minsky
November 21, 2009
The Windsor Star