Life expectancy to drop by a year due to alcohol consumption - OECD

Consumption of more than one unit for women and 1.5 units for men a day causes damage

Life expectancy is expected to drop by almost a year across the world’s higher income economies over the next 30 years, due to alcohol related diseases, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Consumption of more than one drink a day for women and one-and-a-half drinks for men across OECD countries is predicted to lead to a reduction in life expectancy by 11 months and contribute to 1.1 million premature deaths.

The OECD report on preventing harmful alcohol use assesses the effect of daily drinking, without the addition of any binge drinking, on 52 OECD countries.

Consumption of more than one unit for women and 1.5 units for men a day, which the OECD said is the lower risk threshold it assessed, will cause “significant health harms” and will account for 88 per cent of all cases of alcohol dependence and 38 per cent of all cases of cirrhosis.


This level of alcohol consumption would result in 1.1 billion new cases of dependence, 37 million cases of alcohol-related injuries, 12 million cases of diabetes, 24 million cases of cardiovascular disease, five million cases of cirrhosis and 10 million cases of cancer between 2020 and 2050 it said.

Exceeding the one to one-and-a-half drinks per day cap also contributes to people dying prematurely, between the ages of 30 and 70. This would translate to 1.1 million people dying prematurely in the 52 countries examined

Drinking above the cap also results in an increase in health expenditure, the report said, with $138 billion (€113 billion) per year due to be spent to treat these diseases. “This is equivalent to, for instance, the current health spending in Australia or more than twice the current health spending in Belgium,” the report said.

Incidence of other diseases that usually develop at older ages may decrease due to shortened life expectancy, it said, which may result in a reduction in the cost of treatment of conditions, such as non-alcohol-related cancers, dementia and musculoskeletal disorders.

Diseases caused by alcohol consumption above the cap also negatively affect employment and productivity “As a result, it is estimated that gross domestic product (GDP) will be 1.6 per cent lower on average in OECD countries annually over the next 30 years.”

On average, OECD countries lose €344 (€282) per capita per year in labour-related costs.

The majority of such costs are due to decreases in employment and increases in absenteeism and what is termed “presenteeism”, where employees attend work but are unable to perform due to the effects of alcohol consumption.

Ireland shows an alcohol-related health burden just below the OECD average but ranks "among the top countries in terms of alcohol-related disease impact on health expenditure".

Exceeding the cap also exacts a “heavy toll on personal budgets”, the report said, which is highest in Ireland, costing more than $573 (€469) per person per year.

The report was finalised in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the OECD said “early evidence suggests that the crisis has triggered risky drinking behaviours in certain population groups”.

It said it was difficult to know whether these changes will continue when living conditions go back to normal “but the experience of previous crises suggests that we may see an increase in problematic drinking in the medium term”.

The report recommends what it terms the “PPPP approach” to reducing alcohol harm, including limiting the promotion of alcohol to children, better police enforcement to prevent alcohol-related road traffic injuries, upscaling coverage of primary care counselling for patients with harmful alcohol consumption, and pricing policies to limit the affordability of alcohol - particularly cheap alcohol.

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly is Dublin Editor of The Irish Times