The World Now Has 1 Billion Smokers

A new study has revealed that the most common addiction worldwide is smoking, with 22.5% of all adults being regular smokers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cigarette smoking causes about one in five deaths in the U.S., accounting for over 480,000 deaths per year. The study suggests that reducing the numbers of people who smoke should be the biggest priority when it comes to minimizing the harm caused by addiction, but the research also addresses the other most common drugs around the world, with alcohol and marijuana being the two most commonly abused substances besides nicotine.

What Is the World’s Drug of Choice?

The researchers set out to determine what the most commonly abused drugs are worldwide, using online sources to obtain worldwide, national and regional data on the rates of use and harms attributed to tobacco, alcohol and psychoactive drug use. The study also addresses problem gambling, but the limited data available meant that estimates for its prevalence were more uncertain than the other findings.

Tobacco—the World’s Foremost Addiction

Overall, the researchers found that 1 billion people around the world—or 22.5% of all adults—smoke tobacco regularly. This varies significantly by gender, with 32% of men around the world smoking compared to just 7% of women, and there is some variation by location, from a low of 13% in Africa, the Caribbean and Central and North America compared to 29.5% in Oceania and 30.5% in Eastern Europe. Based on data from 2004, the proportion of deaths linked to tobacco and smoking addiction was 6% in women and 11% in men, showing the sizeable contribution tobacco makes to overall rates of death across the planet.

Alcohol—the Most Widely Used Substance

Despite the greater levels of tobacco addiction, the most widely used substance on planet Earth is alcohol, consumed by around 2.1 billion people each year—43% of the global adult population. Of the people who drink alcohol globally, 13% have ͞heavy episodic consumption, or in other words, they binge drink. Of the entire population, 4.9% (around 240 million people) have suffered from an alcohol use disorder—which includes both addiction and harmful drinking—in the last year. On all of these measures, men are more likely to be included than women, with 7.8% of men having an alcohol use disorder compared to 1.5% of women. There is also some notable variation by location for drinking, with the lowest rates of alcohol consumption being observed in Central, Southern and Western Asia (where 9.8% have consumed alcohol in the last year) and the highest being observed in Western Europe (where 88.2% had consumed alcohol in the last year). The U.S. is toward the upper end, with 55% of the population having consumed alcohol in the last year. The differences between Central and North America and South America are minor, but they show that, overall, South Americans drink slightly more but binge drink less. Eighteen percent of men and 3% of women in South America binge, compared to 21% of men and 6% of women in the Caribbean and Central and North America.

Marijuana the Most Widely Used Illicit Drug

Although the data on illegal drugs is less reliable (due to both their illegality and low levels of use), the data show that—as most would expect—marijuana is the most widely used, with 3.5% of the global adult population (around 174 million people) being users. The lowest rate of pot use was observed in Eastern and Southeastern Asia, where just 0.7% of adults used the drug, and the highest rate was seen in Oceania, where 10.3% where classed as users. For the Caribbean and Central and North America, 4.8% of adults were classed as users, a little higher than the global average. Other drugs were used by less than 1% of the population, with cocaine and amphetamine-type drugs being used by 0.5% and opioids being used by 0.2%.

Gambling Addiction Around the World

Finally, the research uses the limited data available to look at the rates of gambling addiction around the world. Although past-year gambling was reported by 65.3% of the population, just 1.5% reported problem gambling. However, this is still a high percentage overall, and there appears to be notable variation by country, with problem gambling rates of 0.4% in Switzerland but 6.4% in South Africa.

Tackling Addiction Is a Global Priority

The undeniable conclusion from this study is that addiction—and in particular nicotine addiction—is a huge problem around the world, and one that nations should do everything within their power to address. Alcohol and tobacco are the most widely available substances and the most common subjects of an addiction, but unfortunately data weren’t available on the percentages of illicit drug users who were dependent on the substances used. In any case, the data paint a picture of addiction driven primarily by the availability of substances and shows the importance of underlining the risks associated with—and the possibility of—addiction to society’s legal substances. Helping more smokers and drinkers break free from their addictions should be a global priority, especially when considering the significant disease and death caused by alcohol and tobacco.

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