Europeans Are World’s Biggest Smokers and Drinkers: WHO

Europeans are the world’s biggest smokers and drinkers, according to a World Health Organization report that says higher prices on cigarettes and alcohol in the region may help curb the death and disease they cause.

On average, 27 percent of people over 15 smoke across the 53 nations that make up the WHO’s European region, higher than in any other part of the world, the Geneva-based agency said today in its triennial health report on the continent, home to 900 million people. Europeans also consume an average of 10.6 liters of alcohol a year, more than in any other region, according to the report.

The two habits are the main contributors to cancer and heart disease, which account for 70 percent of all deaths, as well as respiratory illnesses, the WHO said. Lower prices are linked to higher demand and the deleterious health effects of smoking and alcohol abuse, the agency said.

“When you look at the region as a whole, smoking and alcohol are some of the most important lifestyle factors that are causing death and disability,” said Claudia Stein, director of the division of information, evidence, research and innovation at WHO, at a press conference in London.

While tobacco has been linked with cancer for years, smoking also increases heart risks, research has shown. Drinking too much alcohol has been associated with a greater chance of developing cancers including breast and colon tumors, as well as heart disease.

Male Smokers

More than half of men smoke in Armenia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Turkey, while alcohol consumption is highest in Moldova, Luxembourg, Estonia and the Czech Republic, according to the report.

“It’s quite striking that alcohol consumption in the European region is the highest in the world,” said Andy Haines, professor of public health and primary care at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, at the press conference. “A lot of work needs to be done. That’s partly a matter of pricing.”

Sweden, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iceland have the region’s lowest smoking rates, while alcohol consumption is lowest in predominantly Muslim countries such as Tajikistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

The WHO highlighted marked health disparities across the region. While average life expectancy increased by five years to 76 between 1980 and 2010, it declined for men in eastern Europe, the report said.

Life expectancy for men is lowest in Russia, at 62.8 years, and highest in Israel, at 80.1 years. Kyrgyzstan has the lowest life expectancy for women, 73 years, while Spain has the highest, of 85 years.

Economic Crisis

Spain’s economic crisis threatens to erode that advantage, the WHO said. In general, every 3 percent increase in unemployment is associated with an almost 5 percent increase in suicides and self-inflicted injuries, according to the report. A third of all unemployed people in the euro region are in Spain, where the jobless rate is forecast to reach about 27 percent this year.

“We will have to keep an eye on the economic situation in Spain to see if this has an effect on life expectancy,” Stein said.

Mental and behavioral disorders are highest in Nordic countries such as Finland, Iceland and Denmark.

Eastern Europe is home to the world’s fastest-growing HIV epidemic, and in some eastern countries rates of premature death from heart disease are increasing in defiance of the overall trend, the report shows.

Russian women have 951 abortions for every 1,000 live births, double the rate in Romania, the nation with the next highest rate of pregnancy terminations, according to the report. Russia’s rate has more than halved since 1993, the WHO said.

France and the Netherlands each spend almost 12 percent of gross domestic product on health care, the highest in the region, while Turkmenistan spends 2.5 percent, the least. The U.S. spends about 18 percent of GDP on health care, according to government forecasts.