Friday 16 May 2014


This week it was announced that 3.3 million people are 'killed by alcohol' around the world every year. Or, if you prefer, alcohol kills 1 in 20 people to go alongside the 1 in 10 who are said to be killed by tobacco.

Like most figures related to alcohol these days, I suspect this to be an exaggeration, but it got me thinking about the causes of premature death in the world. For those people who are unfortunate enough to die before their time, what kills them?

Let's start with some uncontroversial statistics for serious diseases...

HIV/AIDS kills 1.6 million.

TB kills 1.0 million.

Diarrhoeal diseases kill 1.9 million. 

Influenza kills at least 250,000.

Malaria kills 1.2 million. 

And then let's take the various preventable lifestyle/environmental causes...

Injuries kill 5 million.

Tobacco kills 6 million.

Air pollution kills 7 million.

Suicide kills 800,000.

Hunger kills 10 million.

Obesity kills "at least" 2.8 million.

Illegal drugs kill 200,000.

Counterfeit medicines kill 1 million.

Alcohol kills 3.3 million.

Physical inactivity kills 3.2 million.

Pregnancy kills 1.0 million.

Climate change kills 5 million.

Salt kills 2.3 million.

High blood sugar kills 3 million.

Fizzy drinks kill 180,000.

Medical error kills 500,000.

There's bound to be a bit of double counting here (eg. part of the alcohol figure includes death by injury), but I've avoided most of it by excluding direct causes of death like heart disease (7 million), stroke (6.2 million) or cancer (7.6 million). I haven't even included infant mortality (6.6 million).

In other words, this is far from being an exhaustive death toll and it doesn't even attempt to include the vast and growing number of people who die peacefully in old age. Nevertheless, the list of "preventable" deaths above totals 57.23 million deaths a year. That is a pretty amazing statistic when you consider that only 55 million people actually die every year. Are we to assume that all deaths are preventable and some people are dying twice?


Fredrik Eich said...

So the biggest preventable cause of death world wide is in fact hunger at 10 million and not tobacco at a mere 6 million. The difference between the two being that you can enjoy a life time smoking cigarettes but only weeks enjoying starvation.

Ben said...

Accounting according to the WHO. Has there ever been an audit?
And then, the world's populations is still growing.

JohnM said...

Chris, you missed a trick with the post title. Can I suggest "You Only Live Twice"

Ben said...

You have forgotten the wars which lead to pretty premature and preventable deaths.

Bucko said...

Just thing what the population would be like if all those preventable deaths were prevented.

Soylent green?

Mad Witch said...

How many are actually managing to die of old age?

Ben said...

But how does the WHO know the number and causes of premature deaths? Guess what, they are guessing.

"Only one-third of all deaths worldwide are recorded in civil registries along with cause-of-death information."

"Worldwide, a major shift is occurring in the causes and ages of death. In 22 countries (all in Africa), 70% or more of years of life lost (due to premature deaths) are still caused by infectious diseases and related conditions. Meanwhile, in 47 countries (mostly high-income), noncommunicable diseases and injuries cause more than 90% of years of life lost."

Eliminating all communicable diseases will logically only leave noncommunicable diseases, accidents, suicide and wars as causes for death. But 100% of living humans will eventually die of premature death. Only the WHO will survive, because its customer is continually growing.

Ben said...

Sorry, forgot the link to the above:

Alex said...

I suspect a big component of this is the problem of using single-issue charities to provide data.
A Cancer charity will tend to exaggerate Cancer deaths and so on, for both selfish and altruistic reasons.
And then of course politicians will usually go along with the exaggerated data as it provides a nice excuse for a power grab.

Anonymous said...

7 billion people divided by 55 million/year gives a first estimate of lifetime at 127 years. OK, it isn't accurate but I'd be looking for 100+ million deaths worldwide per annum.

Rursus said...

The Worldpopulation is 7,2 Billions! 7,2 Billion humans are living on mother earth!

3.3 Million Deaths.... out of 7.2 Billion are only 0,046 % of the worldpopulation!!!

Over 99,954 % are _not_ dying because of alcohol related deseases!

Only 0,046 % are dying because of alcohol related deseases!

The majority has absolutely no problem at all with alcohol.

Because of the 0,046 %, the 99,9 % had to be punished (higher tax) and gagged (prohibition) ???

That is not logical, that is a dictatorship of a minority over a majority.

Christopher Snowdon said...

It's nowhere near accurate. There were 3 billion in 1960 and 4 billion in 1974. It's the people born then and earlier, when total population was much smaller than today, who are mainly dying.

Carl V Phillips said...

Unfortunately, this does not work. A core important lesson in epidemiology (meaning that perhaps 1% of those working it public health have ever learned it) is that you cannot add effects of causes because every effect has many causes. That does not mean, of course, that these claims are not exaggerated -- many or most are. But it does mean that you cannot get there by adding up the counts.

Carl V Phillips said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carl V Phillips said...

Just as an example of what I am talking about, consider a cancer such that the RR for drinking is 2, for smoking is 6, and the RR for smoking and drinking is 11, and 20% of the population smokes and 50% drinks (and that all the smokers are among the drinkers, just to make the calculation easy). Then of all the cases, then just under half of the cases are caused by drinking, and well over half are caused by smoking, totaling to more than all of them (because of those that are caused by both). Throw in those that were also caused by diet or medical errors and you get a larger and larger number compared to the total.

Anonymous said...

Everyone is going to die from something, but realistically we don't last forever so if you put down all the deaths of those over say 85 to old age i wonder what the statistics would look like

Mark Wadsworth said...

That's an excellent list of links, it must have taken you ages but worth the effort.

Apart from that, agreed, obviously. said...


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Frank said...

The link "Pregnancy kills 1.0 million" leads to an article that says "Pregnancy is the biggest killer of teenage girls worldwide, with one million dying or suffering serious injury, infection or disease due to pregnancy or childbirth every year".
So that's 1.0 million killed or seriously injured, which, if the rates are similar to KSI road casualties means about 100,000 killed.
Road safety "experts" often fall into the same trap, they will start talking about killed or seriously injured then claim any reduction in the figure as a life saved.
In this case it doesn't make a huge difference but it reduces your total from 57.23 million to 56.33 million.

Phönix said...

Not to forget fine particulate matter, unpleasant wiorking conditions, polonium and atom tests.

Unknown said...

Hi Chris

Did the WHO in the meantime raise total death toll or was it a typo??

Q: How many people die every year?
In 2012, an estimated 56 million people died worldwide.