Alcohol was behind nearly 80,000 deaths per year in 16 countries in North, Central and South America, say researchers calling drinking an important cause of death. 

Until now, researchers at the Pan American Health Organization in Washington say there hasn't been specific enough information on causes of death by alcohol in the Americas to inform policy options. 

Alcoholic drink

A woman drinks aguardiente, an alcoholic drink, while praying in a church about 60 kilometres from Guatemala City. Data suggests a small proportion of the population in the Central American country drink heavily. (Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters)

In Tuesday's online issue of the journal Addiction, Dr. Vilma Gawryszewski estimated between 2007 and 2009, alcohol was a "necessary" cause of death — meaning the death wouldn't have occurred in the absence of drinking alcohol — in an average of 79,456 cases per year for the 16 countries. 


 
"Diseases, conditions or injuries where alcohol is a necessary cause are an important cause of premature mortality in the Americas, especially among men," Gawryszewski and co-author Dr. Maristela Monteiro concluded. 
 
Alcohol-related deaths are preventable through policies to minimize alcohol drinking, the researchers said. They pointed to Monteiro's previous study, which suggested reducing the availability of alcoholic beverages, raising taxes and marketing controls to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. 
 
Overall, most deaths were due to liver disease (63 per cent) and neuropsychiatric disorders (32 per cent). Excessive alcohol use can cause or exacerbate disorders such as alcohol dependence syndrome, depression, anxiety and psychotic episodes, a previous study suggests. 
 
Gawryszewski said the mortality rates found in this study show the tip of the iceberg, considering alcohol use is also a contributing factor in diseases and conditions such as heart disease, epilepsy and falls as well as interpersonal violence. 

The highest average death rates from alcohol consumption were in Central America:

  • El Salvador (27.4 out of 100,000 deaths per year.) 
  • Guatemala (22.3 out of 100,000 deaths per year). 
  • Nicaragua (21.3 out of 100,000 deaths per year). 

In those countries, the researchers said data suggests consumption is concentrated among a smaller proportion of the population who drink heavily. 

In comparison, the mortality rates from alcohol consumption were 5.7 per 100,000 deaths per year in Canada and 6.7 per 100,000 in the United States.

In Canada, the U.S., Argentina and Costa Rica, Cuba, the highest mortality rates were seen among those aged 50 to 69.