Five things you may not know about alcohol, the most commonly used drug in the world

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Sponsored by the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD), Alcohol Awareness Month began in 1987 to increase the public’s understanding of hazardous alcohol use and alcohol use disorder, and to reduce the stigma that often comes along with these conditions. In recognition of this critical public health initiative, at the Recovery Research Institute, we wanted to pass along five important, but potentially lesser known facts about alcohol and its impact on society that are grounded in scientific research. We hope it sparks thinking and conversation about the role of alcohol in your life and the lives of those you care about.

Did you know?… 

1) Alcohol is a Group 1 carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC; i.e., it is known to cause cancer) and the United States Department of Health and Human Services. For example, when examined as a group, studies investigating the relationship between drinking and cancer show that consuming as little as 1.5 standard drinks per day (i.e., 20 grams of pure alcohol) increases breast cancer risk in women by 25% and esophageal cancer risk by 86% (see here).  

2) Harmful drinking and alcohol use disorder account for 12.1% of all disability-adjusted life-years lost (i.e., healthy years lost due to premature death or disease/disability) for men, and 4.5% for women in the United States (see here) 

3) Worldwide, 6% of all deaths are attributable to alcohol consumption, greater than HIV/AIDS, violence, or tuberculosis (see here), while harmful alcohol use is the leading risk factor for death in males aged 15-59, and leading risk factor for all disability-adjusted life years lost in 15-24 olds (see here). Also, prior correlation studies have found an association between low level alcohol and a cardio-protective effect relative to people who don’t drink at all.  More rigorous scientific and technically sophisticated studies have shown, however, that it is very unlikely that this association is causal (that moderate drinking is what leads to better cardiovascular health), and more likely that abstinent individuals have generally poorer health than moderate drinkers (i.e., they stopped drinking because of poor health), which is responsible for their increased risk of negative cardiovascular events (see here for an RRI monthly research review summary that details this issue).  

4) The potential negative harms of alcohol use can be challenged at a public health level with several straightforward policy changes (see here, for example). These policies include, for example, reducing excess availability of alcohol (e.g., by controlling the density of establishments that can sell alcohol), increasing the price of alcohol (e.g., via alcohol-specific taxes and minimum pricing), and regulating the reach of alcohol advertising, especially ads that target young people.  

5) Excessive drinking – including but not limited to alcohol use disorder – costs the United States approximately $250 billion annually, in lost productivity as well as health care, criminal justice, and various forms of property damage including motor vehicle crashes (see here).