New World Health Organization research shows rising alcohol consumption in much of Asia. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
New The Lancet research shows rising incomes is driving rising alcohol consumption in much of Asia. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Rising incomes are driving up alcohol consumption in much of Asia and the Pacific, with death rates from excessive drinking in Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Russia now among the highest anywhere in the world.

Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific are the only two regions that have seen increased per capita consumption since 2000, according to the latest Global Status Report compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO). The UN agency has called for stronger measures to prevent the growing medical toll.

“Concerted actions are needed to achieve at least stabilization of increasing trends in alcohol consumption in the Southeast Asia and Western Pacific regions …,” the report said. “Proven, cost-effective actions include increasing taxes on alcoholic drinks, bans or restrictions on alcohol advertising, and restricting the physical availability of alcohol.”

Only about 33.1% of people aged 15 or over consumed alcohol in the Southeast Asian region in 2016, which includes India and other South Asian countries. In contrast, almost 60% were drinkers in Europe, 54.1% in the Americas and 53.8% in the Western Pacific, a category which includes China in the WHO research.

But while other regions registered decreases, per capita consumption in Southeast Asia surged from 2.4 liters of pure alcohol per capita per year in 2000 to 4.5 liters in 2016, and from 4.8 liters to 7.3 liters in the Western Pacific.

The spikes were largely due to sharp increases in China (from 4.1 liters to 7.2 liters) and India (from 2.4 liters to 5.7 liters) respectively within the period.

AFR (Africa), AMR (Americas), EMR (Eastern Mediterranean) EUR (Europe), SEAR (Southeast Asia + India) WPR (Western Pacific + China) Source: WHO

WHO expects global per capita consumption to reach seven liters in the next 10 years, up from 6.4 liters in 2016, “unless projected increasing trends in alcohol consumption in the region of Americas and the Southeast Asia and Western Pacific regions are stopped and reversed.”

“The highest increase is expected in the Southeast Asia Region, with an increase of 2.2 liters alone in India … The second-highest increase is projected for the populations of the Western Pacific region, where the population of China is the largest, with an increase in per capita consumption of 0.9 liters of pure alcohol by 2025,” the report said.

Smaller increases are expected in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, but consumption will fall in some more advanced countries like Australia. There are 1.4 billion regular drinkers in Southeast Asia and 1.5 billion in the Western Pacific, accounting for half of all consumers worldwide.

Harmful alcohol use is linked to more than 200 health issues, including road injuries, liver diseases, violence, a range of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, suicides, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. However, figures on Asia’s death toll are distorted by consumption patterns of just a few countries.

Alcohol contributed to 21.6% of all deaths recorded in Russia in 2016, as well as 7.6% in South Korea, 7.4% in Thailand and 7.3% in Vietnam, according to WHO. Only the small European country of Moldova, where alcohol was a factor in 26.1% of deaths, had a bigger problem with booze in that year.

People drinking inside a bar in the old French Quarter of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Yet it contributed to just 1.4% of deaths in Turkey, 1.7% in Indonesia, 2.4% in Singapore and 3.8% in China. The global average was 5.3% deaths in 2016, with three million people losing their lives after abusing alcohol.

WHO said that one factor behind the increasing health risks was the transition from lower-strength beverages like beer to spirits and other more expensive drinks as incomes rise. Spirits are very high in alcohol content in some countries and they often contain harmful additives.

Much is home-made, with “unrecorded” alcohol — generally spirits — accounting for as much as 45.4% of total consumption in Southeast Asia. Spirits comprise about 88% of alcohol consumed in that region, compared with 59% in the Western Pacific region and a global average of 44.8%.

In Thailand, where per capita consumption averaged 8.3 liters of alcohol in 2016, 69% of drinkers consumed spirits, against 28% for beer. Spirits were also the main beverage for 69% of South Koreans, but were favored by only 39% and 8% respectively in less-developed Russia and Vietnam.

Not surprisingly, populous China and India had the biggest fatality tolls from alcohol in absolute numbers among Asian countries in 2016: there were 264,468 deaths in India and 249,906 in China. Russia recorded 63,089 deaths, Thailand 22,448 deaths and Vietnam 21,709 deaths, the WHO report said.