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The global health cost of addiction

March/ April 2011 | Volume 10, Issue 2

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are consumers of substances that alter behavior, impair health and create a craving for continued use. Addiction results in the harmful or hazardous use of tobacco and psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs. Psychoactive substance use can lead to dependence syndrome - a cluster of behavioral, cognitive and physiological phenomena that develop after repeated substance use and that typically include a strong desire to take the drug, difficulties in controlling its use and a higher priority given to drug use than to other activities and obligations.

Recent estimates are that in 2008, 155 to 250 million people, or 3.5 to 5.7 percent of the world’s population aged 15 to 64, used psychoactive substances such as cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine, opioids and non-prescribed psychoactive prescription medication. Cannabis is the most commonly used (129-190 million people), followed by amphetamines, cocaine and opioids. Globally, it is estimated that 13.5 million people take opioids, including 9.2 million who use heroin.

What’s the result? WHO says the use of psychoactive substances "causes significant health and social problems for the people who use them, and also for others in their families and communities." WHO estimated that 0.7 percent of the global burden of disease in 2004 was due to cocaine and opioid use, with the social cost of illicit substance use nearly two percent of Gross Domestic Product in those countries that have measured it.

Tobacco is of course a legal drug, and its consequences are nearly catastrophic for global health. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death and most of these deaths are in low- and middle-income countries. If current trends persist, tobacco will account for eight million deaths annually by 2030, with 80 percent in low-and middle-income countries.

Through its tobacco program and other grants, Fogarty has been supporting addiction research and producing results that may lead to better and more effective interventions.

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