1 in 20 Australian deaths caused by alcohol and illicit drugs

Alcohol and illicit drugs have a significant impact on the health of Australians, together 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,’ said AIHW spokesperson Dr Lynelle Moon.

‘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,’ Dr Moon said.

‘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,’ Dr Moon said.

‘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,’ he said. 

‘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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