South Africans are drinking themselves to death

 ·15 Jul 2018

A new study has shown that one in 10 deaths in South Africa can be attributed to alcohol abuse in some way – with men in low income groups the most at risk.

This was one of the findings in a research paper published by the BMC Medicine journal recently, where researchers sought to find the link between alcohol abuse and mortality rates across different socio-economic levels in South Africa.

According to the paper, globally, illness and life expectancy follow a social gradient that puts people of lower socioeconomic status at higher risk of dying prematurely – and alcohol consumption has been shown to be a major contributing factor.

South Africa is already known to have a drinking problem, with the country ranking among some of the worst in the world for its levels of alcohol consumption – and when it comes to road deaths, South Africa also has a terrible reputation for the number of fatalities as a result of drunk driving.

Breaking down the data

According to the research paper, South Africa has a large drinking population with almost half of all adults being current or binge drinkers (though the majority still abstains). But this is very dependent on the demographics.

Men are bigger drinkers by a wide margin, across all socio-economic levels. There are proportionally more high-income drinkers – buts it’s the middle and lower-income groups that drink the most, and abuse (binge drink) the most.

The same applies to women, though at a much lower rate, the data showed. The table below outlines South Africa’s drinking habits by group:


However, when looking at mortality rates, its the lower socio-economic levels who are dying alcohol-related deaths. The table below shows the total deaths, and how many injury, infectious disease and chronic disease deaths can be attributable to alcohol.

“Overall, approximately 62,300 adults died from alcohol-attributable causes of death in South Africa in 2015. With a total of approximately 529,400 deaths from all causes, roughly one in ten deaths was attributable to alcohol use,” the researchers said.

“Roughly 60% of all alcohol-attributable deaths (~39,300 deaths) occurred in the low socio-economic group. About a quarter (~17,000 deaths) occurred in the middle group, and roughly 15% (~9000 deaths) in the high SES group.

“In the higher socio-economic group, deaths due to chronic diseases constituted the largest subcategory of alcohol-attributable deaths. In the middle income group, chronic and infectious diseases contributed approximately the same number of deaths.

“In the low income group, the majority of the alcohol-attributable deaths occurred due to infectious diseases.”

Getting worse

According to the paper, the approximation of one in 10 (~12%) people dying from alcohol-related causes is much higher than the previous estimate of 7% in 2010, showing that there is a growing problem in the country.

However, the growth can also be explained by the inclusion of additional causes of death – most notable HIV/AIDS – into the research. But the problem could worse than the research is able to show.

Specifically, it’s estimated that 23% of all alcohol consumed in South Africa is unrecorded (ie, in shebeens), which is more likely than not taken in by the lower socio-economic groups.

This could mean that, while the available data shows that two in ten deaths in the lower income groups can be attributable to alcohol, the number may be higher.

The researchers said that when looking for ways to change policies or introduce interventions, this needs to be taken into account.

Read: 7 things you need to know about the Western Cape’s massive alcohol clampdown

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