The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that one in ten deaths of American adults are the result of excessive alcohol use. However, alcohol abuse is not just a problem for the United States. In the developing world, where “excess” is often uncommon, alcohol abuse is steadily increasing, along with the health problems associated with it.
According to the World Health Organization, worldwide, there were 3.3 million deaths caused by alcohol, in 2012. Alcohol abuse also has consequences reaching far beyond the immediate effects of intoxication (like “violence and injuries” often related to impaired judgment, risky sexual behaviors, birth defects, and miscarriages in pregnant women).
The WHO states that excessive alcohol use “can not only lead to dependence, but also increases people’s risk of developing more than 200 diseases, including liver cirrhosis and some cancers.” The CDC notes that mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast cancer can all develop from alcohol abuse, as well as gastrointestinal issues like pancreatitis and gastritis. Alarmingly, alcohol can also impair one’s immune system, making people “more susceptible to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia.”
The prevalence of heavy drinking has skyrocketed in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where the urban populations have increased dramatically in recent decades. Often, difficult social and economic issues (such as “poverty and dependence on a cash economy” and “high levels of violence”) cause people to begin abusing alcohol, and other illicit substances. The WHO reports that 77 percent of impoverished children in Brazil abuse alcohol.
Substance abuse is often used as a solution to “alleviate emotional stress.” This stress can be a result of poverty, which includes “unemployment, low education and deprivation.” This “self-medication” has dangerous consequences, as up to 16 percent of the burden of disease can be attributed to alcohol use.
A report by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine examined the relationship between alcohol use and mental health, in developing countries. The report included the find that, typically, binge drinking among men is considered more socially acceptable than binge drinking among women, and it can even be considered a sign of maturity. As a result, alcohol dependence is far more common in men.
The report also found that there was a clear correlation between “hazardous drinking” and “common mental disorders,” like depression or anxiety disorders. Furthermore, studies in Eastern Europe, Chile, and Ethiopia showed a connection between alcohol use and suicide rates. The report provided explanations for this relationship, stating “alcohol may disinhibit suicidal impulses.” Conversely, “chronic and heavy alcohol use may lead to a gradual disintegration of the person’s social life, depression, and, thus, an elevated risk of suicide.”
The WHO suggests “major efforts” in order to prevent alcohol dependence from developing. The people of the organization suggest establishing community-based programs to identify “hazardous use” and perform interventions. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine proposes a different strategy: raising alcohol taxes based on “the level of alcohol content in a given beverage,” which would likely reduce the consumption of hard liquor. Combining these suggested tactics could help reduce the prevalence of alcohol-related disease and deaths.
– Bridget Tobin