Are Tobacco And Alcohol More Harmful Than Illicit Drugs?

By Keri Blakinger 05/14/18

A new report revealed the biggest threats to human health around the world.

hand holding a beer and a cigarette

Booze and cigarettes are a bigger global threat to human health than illegal drugs, according to a new report. 

Researchers in Britain evaluated 2015 data to determine that the worldwide health cost of alcohol and tobacco was more than 250 million disability-adjusted life years. 

“Smoking and alcohol are always well ahead [of illicit drugs], there’s nowhere that it even comes close,” one of the report’s co-authors, Robert West of University College London and one of the report’s authors, told The Independent.

Roughly one in seven adults is a smoker while one in five reported heavy drinking at least once in the past month, the report found. About 4% of the world population smokes pot and less than 1% use opioids and cocaine, researchers wrote this month in the journal Addiction.

“This report is a stark reminder that Western governments are failing badly in their duty of care to their citizens, particularly with regard to tobacco and alcohol,” West said in a statement

But the problem is worse in some parts of the world than others. Europe saw more heavy drinking than other parts of the world as well as a higher prevalence of tobacco smoking.

“We think of ourselves as bastions of civilization, but on this particular area we’re doing worse than the developing world,” West said.

When it came to illicit drug use, though, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand turned out to be the global hotspots. 

The U.S. and Canada had some of the highest rates of pot, opioid and cocaine dependence, while Australia and New Zealand had the most widespread amphetamine dependence.

Some parts of the globe had less reliable or less complete data, including low and middle income countries in the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia.  

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

West framed the findings as a call to action. 

“We should be under no illusion that what we are seeing here is corporate profit taking precedence over health well-being,” he said. “This may well need to become an election issue for governments to take the action needed.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.