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These Two Everyday Substances Are Worse For You Than All Other Drugs

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Madison Dapcevich

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Madison Dapcevich

Freelance Writer and Fact-Checker

Madison is a freelance science reporter and full-time fact-checker based in the wild Rocky Mountains of western Montana.

Freelance Writer and Fact-Checker

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Alcohol and tobacco are among the biggest threats to human health in developed countries, causing more death, disability, and addiction than illicit drugs, according to a new review on addictive substances.

The Global Statistics on Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illicit Drug Use: 2017 Status Report examined the prevalence of drug use and how it relates to death and disability. More than a quarter of a billion years of healthy lifespans were lost because of users are now burdened by health issues associated with drug use. Alcohol and tobacco contributed to an overwhelming majority of those years lost, but that could be because they’re more commonly used. Illicit drugs cost tens of millions of years on top of that.

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The harm caused by smoking and alcohol is namely because they are more common. Global estimates suggest 18 percent of people reported “heavy” drinking at least once a month and 15 percent reported smoking tobacco daily. Illicit drugs worldwide have a much lower usage rate worldwide. Last year, 3.8 percent of people reported using marijuana and less than 1 percent using amphetamine (0.77 percent), non-medical opioid (0.37 percent), and cocaine (0.35 percent).

Europeans disproportionately suffered more with the highest level of alcohol consumption and heavy drinking per capita, as well as the highest use of tobacco smoking. In 2015, areas with the highest amount of alcohol consumption almost doubled the global average in Eastern (11.98 liters), Central (11.61 liters), and Western Europe (11.09 liters) for people over 15 years old every year. These areas also had the highest smoking rates.

On the other hand, illicit drugs were much less common in Europe. Less than one in 20 people were estimated to have used cannabis in the past year, even less for amphetamines, opioids, and cocaine.  

Across the sea, the US and Canada had one of the highest rates of cannabis, opioid, and cocaine dependence. Australia and New Zealand had the highest prevalence of amphetamine use in addition to high rates of cannabis, opioids, and cocaine use.

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China, India, and Indonesia had some of the largest numbers of smokers and higher death rates for those who drink.

The review, which is published in Addiction, used data obtained from the World Health Organization, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. There was little or no data available on substance use and associated health issues in Africa, Asia, Caribbean, and Latin America, which is a limitation in the study. Regardless, the authors believe this information will help treat and understand substance abuse around the world.

“Putting all this information in one place will make it easier for governments and international agencies to develop policies to combat substance use,” said the authors.


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