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Addictions Vary Depending on Where in the World You Live

A new compilation of data finds Eastern Europe is a leader in both alcohol and tobacco consumption.
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(Photo: Andreas Levers/Flickr)

(Photo: Andreas Levers/Flickr)

Is it the legacy of Communist rule? The continuing economic deprivation? Or simply a matter of cultural norms?

For whatever reason, Eastern Europeans use both tobacco and alcohol at the highest rates in the world.

That’s one result of a newly published report that compiles statistics on addictive behaviors around the world. It concludes that “Tobacco and alcohol use are by far the most prevalent addictive behaviors, and cause the large majority of the harm.”

A research team led by Linda Gowing of the University of Adelaide in Australia compiled data from several sources, including the World Health Organization and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Its findings, published in the journal Addiction, include the following:

  • Globally, approximately 43 percent of adults drink alcohol.
  • About 4.9 percent of the world’s adult population suffers from alcohol use disorder, a medical term for problem drinking. This issue is far more prevalent among men (7.8 percent) than women (1.5 percent).
  • An estimated 22.5 percent of the world’s adults smoke tobacco products (32 percent of men and seven percent of women).
  • Approximately 11 percent of deaths among men and six percent of deaths among women each year are tied to tobacco usage.
  • Among drugs that are illegal (in most countries), cannabis use is by far the most prevalent, with 3.5 percent of the world’s population using it. (The report does not distinguish between regular and occasional usage.)

Breaking the statistics down by region, the report finds Eastern Europeans are the heaviest drinkers, consuming an estimated 23 liters (6.07 gallons) of alcohol per year. Northern Europeans were second (at 16.4 liters), followed by Western Europeans and Southern Europeans. North Americans ranked fairly low on the list, at 9.8 liters (2.5 gallons) per year, with East Asians and Africans consuming even less.

Northern Europeans ranked first in terms of the percentage of people who had engaged in heavy drinking in the past 30 days (34.7 percent), and in the prevalence of alcohol use disorders (9.3 percent of the population). Eastern Europe followed close behind on both scores, with an astonishing 50 percent of men reporting they had drank heavily over the past 30 days. In contrast, the heavy drinking rate among North Americans was 21 percent for men and six percent for women.

Approximately 30.5 percent of Eastern Europeans smoke tobacco, the highest level in the world. Oceana (a region comprising Australia and nearby islands) is close behind at 29.5 percent, followed by Western Europe at 28.5 percent, and Southern Europe at 28.0 percent. North America (including Central America and the Caribbean) smoked at half that rate, with 13 percent of the population smoking; it tied with Africa at the bottom of the list.

Cannabis use is highest by far in Oceana, at 10.3 percent of the population. Also high on that list (so to speak) are Western Europe at 5.2 percent, Northern Europe at 4.9 percent, and North America at 4.8 percent.

For all their drinking and tobacco use, pot smoking is one habit Eastern Europeans have yet to discover: Their rate of usage, at 3.2 percent, is among the lowest in the world.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.