Alcohol and Tobacco Still Top the List of Most Deadly Drugs in New Study

Cocaine's got nothing on these two substances.

Every week there seems to be a new, scary drug on the market, some kind of scary drug contamination making people sick, or new uses for old, scary drugs in the news. Sure, the United States is in the middle of an opioid crisis, driven in large part by an influx of illicit fentanyl, but a new report shows that two of the most commonplace drugs are still responsible for the most lost years of healthy life.

The review, published Friday in the journal Addiction and first-authored by Australia National Drug and Research Centre psychologist Amy Peacock, Ph.D., showed in an analysis of global drug use statistics that alcohol and tobacco cause more lost years of life than illicit drugs. The study, which combines data from the World Health Organization, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, shows that in 2015, tobacco and alcohol cost 170.9 million and 85 million years of healthy life, respectively. This vastly outweighs the burden of illicit drugs, which are responsible for 27.8 million years altogether.

Tobacco and alcohol are still deadlier than illicit drugs, show global statistics.


The team measured the health burden of substance use with a unit called Disability-Adjusted Life Year (DALY), which the World Health Organization defines as “one lost year of ‘healthy’ life.” The results may sound alarming, given the amount we hear about the dangers of illicit drugs, but if you look at how many more people use alcohol and tobacco compared to, say, cocaine, it’s not that surprising that more people’s lives are shortened due to the sheer scale of consumption. Below is a snapshot of the team’s findings.

  • 18.3 percent of adults had had at least one heavy drinking session in the last month.
  • 15.2 percent of adults were daily tobacco smokers.
  • 3.8 percent of adults had used cannabis in the past year.
  • 0.77 percent of adults had used amphetamine in the past year.
  • 0.37 percent of adults had used opioids in the past year.
  • 0.35 percent of adults had used cocaine in the past year.

The researchers emphasize that the results, which cover adults all over the world, are somewhat skewed because data collection is not reliable or available in some developing countries and in those with harsh drug penaltie. Therefore, they note, as researchers all over the world begin to collect better data, we’ll know more about the true burden of drugs around the globe.

“Tobacco and alcohol are more commonly used and make larger contributions to disease burden that illicit drugs,” write the authors, “but the latter’s burden is underestimated because of limitations on data availability and quality.”

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