You're here: Home / Alcohol knowledge centre / Health impacts

Health impacts

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the harmful use of alcohol results in 2.5 million deaths each year globally. Alcohol is associated with more than 60 adverse health consequences and is ranked by the WHO as the third leading cause of death and disability in the developed world. This is supported by the latest data from the Global Burden of Disease report, which ranks alcohol as the third most dangerous health risk in the entire world. It is also the leading risk factor in the Western Pacific and the Americas and the second highest in Europe. Dealing with the problems of alcohol consumption is rated as more important than high cholesterol levels and obesity, 3 times more important than diabetes and 5 times more important than asthma.

A nation's consumption of alcohol directly impacts on the health of its citizens. The European Comparative Alcohol Study has found that for all European Union (EU) countries, any rise or fall in alcohol consumption runs parallel to the harm caused by it.*

This especially applies to the UK, where deaths from liver cirrhosis (largely caused by alcohol) increased – as did consumption levels – between 1987 and 2001. Cirrhosis deaths more than doubled over the period in Scotland alone, and are now among the highest in Western Europe.

But alcohol does not just impact on the body; it affects mental health too. Alcohol is the second most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world, (caffeine is first). Some of the most frequently cited reasons for drinking involve bringing about a change of mood in order to feel better (e.g. drinking 'to relieve stress', cheer oneself up, etc). But alcohol is actually a depressant, and when it is consumed to harmful levels it becomes one of the leading risk factors for depression and suicides. As a result, virtually every system can be affected by the consumption of alcohol.

Click on links opposite to view individual factsheets.

Click here to view factsheet in pdf format


*   Norstrom T & Skog O-J (2001), 'Alcohol and mortality', Addiction, 96, Supplement 1, S5–S18