Global Health

More people drank excessively during the pandemic. The world must tackle its alcohol problem

Alcohol consumption contributes to 3 million deaths each year

Alcohol consumption contributes to 3 million deaths each year. Image: Alexander Popov/Unsplash

William Stilley
CEO, Adial Pharmaceuticals
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Global Health

  • Excessive alcohol consumption has a serious worldwide health impact.
  • The pandemic exacerbated harmful drinking habits for many people.
  • Many new treatments are coming to light, creating a growing market in addressing alcohol use disorder.

Every year, excessive drinking takes a huge toll on people’s lives and health across the world. “Alcohol consumption contributes to 3 million deaths each year globally, as well as to the disabilities and poor health of millions of people,” the World Health Organization (WHO) reports. “Overall, harmful use of alcohol is responsible for 5.1% of the global burden of disease.” Among people aged 15 to 49, alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature death, accounting for 10% of all deaths. While the opioid crisis has often received more attention, alcohol addiction has been deadlier.

By one estimate, more than 280 million people worldwide have alcohol use disorder (AUD), the WHO reported in 2018. Very few ever get help. According to a study in the United States, only 6% of people with a drinking problem received treatment. The past two pandemic years have in some ways made this problem even worse, as some people suffering from anxiety or loneliness turned to alcohol. “During the COVID‑19 pandemic, people have significantly changed drinking habits,” the OECD reports. “Overall, most people did not change how much they drank but, among those who did, a larger proportion of people drank more.”

As bars and restaurants closed, there has also been, naturally, an increase in people drinking alone. With no bartender to cut someone off, people may drink more and are more likely to engage in harmful practices. In England and Wales, alcohol-related deaths reached a record high in 2020, the British Medical Journal reported. In the United States, fatal car crashes involving alcohol jumped 9% even with fewer cars on the road, according to statistics from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

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Meanwhile, the pandemic has also made efforts to address alcohol use disorder more difficult. As the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted, treatments can be disrupted by the pandemic, and some in-person options for those with the disorder may no longer be available.

In addition to the toll excessive alcohol use takes on lives and families, it also exacts a hefty financial price. It cost the US economy about $250 billion in 2010. A study from the OECD estimates that in addition to healthcare costs, the lost employment and productivity from excessive drinking erases “the equivalent of 32.7 million full-time workers per year across the 52 countries analysed”.

Among people aged 15 to 49 worldwide, alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature death
Among people aged 15 to 49 worldwide, alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature death Image: Statista

New treatments for alcohol disorders

Alcohol addiction has existed in human societies for thousands of years. But the rapid creation of powerful vaccines against COVID-19 has shown the world that new solutions to health problems are possible. While there is no vaccine against alcohol addiction, there are big steps underway to offer new treatments.

As a report by the World Economic Forum noted, some of these developments for alcohol use disorder fall under the category of “precision medicine” or “personalized medicine”. This includes my team at Adial Pharmaceuticals, which focuses on people with certain genotypes related to serotonin transporter and receptor genes. The drug we are developing is a targeted therapeutic agent, designed to reduce the urge to drink among these people. We expect phase 3 trials across six countries to be completed by the end of March 2022.

Some other organizations are pioneering new efforts to get telehealth treatments to those in need. Numerous factors, such as lack of access and fear of stigmas, have prevented people from getting facility-based mental-health treatment for addiction, or taking part in group therapy. Meanwhile, telehealth programs have faced challenges of their own – particularly regulatory barriers that make it difficult for practitioners to offer such care and have led insurance companies to refuse coverage. But many bureaucratic requirements have been dropped during the pandemic, allowing more people to access “tele-mental” healthcare for substance abuse, according to a report from the Mayo Clinic. As telemedicine grows worldwide, providers may be able to reach more people than ever suffering from AUD.

There are also new apps and AI tools being created. “By analyzing certain search queries or behavioral patterns, algorithms could determine when a person in recovery is struggling,” American Addiction Centers reports. Apps can help track alcohol use and blood alcohol content. And there are growing online communities for people to engage in virtual group therapy.

The addiction treatment market

In addition to saving countries from tremendous losses each year, addressing alcohol addiction also offers another economic benefit: It is a rapidly growing field of its own. According to a new report, the global market size for treating alcohol and nicotine addiction was $4.7 billion in 2020, and is expected to reach $5.1 billion this year and $7.9 billion by 2026. Nations and businesses that invest in emerging solutions will be best positioned to be a part of this market growth.

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As these new solutions become available, it is crucial that they be broadly distributed. By ensuring that people have coverage and access to remedies across all demographics, societies will tap into the benefits of counteracting addiction – and will take another step forward in building a healthier future.

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Global HealthHealth and HealthcareCOVID-19
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