Research Article: The Risks Associated With Alcohol Use and Alcoholism

Date Published: , 2011

Publisher: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Author(s): Jürgen Rehm.



Alcohol consumption, particularly heavier drinking, is an important risk factor for many health problems and, thus, is a major contributor to the global burden of disease. In fact, alcohol is a necessary underlying cause for more than 30 conditions and a contributing factor to many more. The most common disease categories that are entirely or partly caused by alcohol consumption include infectious diseases, cancer, diabetes, neuropsychiatric diseases (including alcohol use disorders), cardiovascular disease, liver and pancreas disease, and unintentional and intentional injury. Knowledge of these disease risks has helped in the development of low-risk drinking guidelines. In addition to these disease risks that affect the drinker, alcohol consumption also can affect the health of others and cause social harm both to the drinker and to others, adding to the overall cost associated with alcohol consumption. These findings underscore the need to develop effective prevention efforts to reduce the pain and suffering, and the associated costs, resulting from excessive alcohol use.

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Overall, the various risks associated with alcohol use at various levels can be combined to derive low-risk drinking guidelines. Such analyses found that overall, any increase in drinking beyond one standard drink on average per day is associated with an increased net risk for morbidity and mortality in high-income countries (Rehm et al. 2009). Moreover, at any given consumption level this risk increase is larger for women than for men. NIAAA has translated the epidemiological findings into low-risk drinking limits of no more than 14 standard drinks per week for men and 7 standard drinks per week for women (NIAAA 2010). These guidelines also specify that to limit the risk of acute consequences, daily consumption should not exceed four standard drinks for men and three for women (NIAAA 2010).

The most recent systematic overview on the effects of alcohol on global burden of disease was based on data for the year 2004 (Rehm et al. 2009a, b) (see table 2). The analyses found that although AUDs (which constitute the major part of the neuropsychiatric disorders listed in the table) clearly are important contributors to global burden of disease, they only account for less than one-third of the overall impact of alcohol consumption. Almost equally important are the acute effects of alcohol consumption on the risk of both unintentional and intentional injury. In addition, alcohol has a sizable effect on the burden of disease associated with infectious diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and liver cirrhosis. However, alcohol consumption also has beneficial effects on the burden of disease, mainly on diabetes and the ischemic disease subcategory of cardiovascular diseases. Yet these effects are by far outweighed by the detrimental consequences of alcohol consumption.

So far, the discussion has centered on alcohol’s effects on health as measured by indicators that primarily are based on the records of hospitals and health systems. Reflecting the information contained in those records, most of the effects considered refer to the health of the drinker. However, this analytic approach omits two large classes of adverse consequences of alcohol: social harm to the drinker and social and health harms to others that result from the drinker’s alcohol consumption. According to the Constitution of the WHO (WHO 1946), health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (p. 100); this definition therefore takes into account not just physical and mental harms but also social harms, both for the drinker and for others.

As this review has shown, alcohol use is associated with tremendous costs to the drinker, those around him or her, and society as a whole. These costs result from the increased health risks (both physical and mental) associated with alcohol consumption as well as from the social harms caused by alcohol. To reduce alcohol’s impact on the burden of disease as well as on other social, legal, and monetary costs, it therefore is imperative to develop effective interventions that can prevent or delay initiation of drinking among those who do not drink, particularly adolescents, and limit consumption to low-risk drinking levels among those who do consume alcohol. The remaining articles in this journal issue present several such intervention approaches that are being implemented and evaluated in a variety of settings and/or are targeted at different population subgroups. Together with alcohol-related prevention policies, the implementation of specific interventions with proven effectiveness can help reduce the pain and suffering, and the associated costs, resulting from excessive alcohol use.





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