1 in 20 Australian deaths are caused by alcohol and illicit drugs

| April 2, 2018

Alcohol and illicit drugs have a significant impact on the health of Australians, responsible for nearly 1 in every 20 deaths, according to new analysis from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, Impact of alcohol and illicit drug use on the burden of disease and injury in Australia, uses data from the 2011 Australian Burden of Disease Study published in 2016 – the next study due out in 2019 – to calculate the health impact— or ‘burden’ — of alcohol and illicit drugs.

This is calculated in terms of years of life lost from early death – the ‘fatal burden’ – as well as the years of healthy life lost due to living with diseases or injuries caused by alcohol and drugs – the ‘non-fatal burden’.

The report shows that alcohol and illicit drugs were collectively responsible for 6.7% of Australia’s combined fatal and non-fatal disease burden. This compares to 9% from tobacco smoking and 2.6% from physical inactivity.

The burden was much higher in males than females—alcohol and illicit drugs were responsible for 9.1% of all disease burden in males, compared to 3.8% in females.

The report also shows that a higher proportion of the burden of alcohol and illicit drugs was ‘fatal’—that is, due to early death—than ‘non-fatal’.

Overall, 8.1% of Australia’s fatal burden was due to alcohol and illicit drugs, while 5.2% of all non-fatal burden was caused by alcohol and illicit drugs.

Combined, alcohol and illicit drugs were responsible for 4.5% of all deaths in Australia in 2011—equating to 6,660 deaths, or about 1 in every 20 deaths.

By itself, alcohol use was responsible for 4.6% of all disease burden. One-third of this burden was due to alcohol dependence.

Alcohol use was responsible for almost one-third of the burden of road traffic injuries.

On its own, illicit drug use was responsible for 2.3% of Australia’s disease burden. Opioids accounted for the largest proportion (41%) of the illicit drug use burden, followed by amphetamines (18%), cocaine (8%) and cannabis (7%). In addition, 18% of the burden was from diseases contracted through unsafe injecting practices.

Despite the significant contribution of alcohol to Australia’s disease burden, the report predicts improvements will be seen in the coming years. However, this does not look to be the case for many illicit drugs.

The burden from alcohol use fell by around 7% between 2003 and 2011 and further reductions are expected by 2020 based on these trends.

Between 2011 and 2020, burden from the use of amphetamines is expected to rise by 14%, while the burden of disease from cannabis use is expected to rise by 36% for females and remain steady for males. The burden of disease from cocaine use is expected to fall by 24% for males and remain steady for females.

The burden caused by unsafe injecting practices is expected to fall by 21% for males and 17% for females.

Projections are not yet available on the likely future impact of opioid use; however, AIHW analysis from last year highlighted the significant health consequences caused by the rising non-medical use of pharmaceuticals, including prescription opioids.

AIHW CEO Barry Sandison noted that the report demonstrated the value of using data to build the evidence base in important areas of public policy and service delivery.

For example, there is more to learn about the links between alcohol and drug use and mental health problems or the health impact of fetal alcohol syndrome—using multiple data sources to understand these links and their impacts on people is critical to responding to people’s needs.

It is important to continue to report using the latest available information as well as work towards filling gaps in the data. This is essential to improving the evidence base on this important issue.

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Lynelle Moon

Dr Moon has worked for the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare since 1995. She holds a PhD in epidemiology, a BMath, and postgraduate qualifications in statistics and population health.

One Comment

  1. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    April 5, 2018 at 10:11 am

    This is all very well. However, many people take very little thought for the future, preferring instant gratification. Most people are aware that alcohol damages the body as does smoking but that knowledge has little practical effect. I am sure that those who take illicit drugs are equally aware of the damage they can cause, but just ignore it. Let’s face it, a significant proportion of the population basically doesn’t really care if they live or die. I agree that many more have a strong urge to achieve and be useful to the community but there are always those who are attracted to drugs for whatever reason. During WW 2 soldiers ate boot-polish sandwiches for the kick of the solvent; some sniffed petrol. Our war against drugs can never be won.