The world's first compilation of global addictions has revealed that almost 5 percent of the world's adult population (240 million people) are addicted to alcohol and more than 20 percent (1 billion people) smoke tobacco.
Getting good data on other drugs such as heroin and cannabis is much more difficult but for comparison the number of people injecting drugs is estimated at around 15 million worldwide.
The 'Global Statistics on Addictive Behaviors: 2014 Status Report' goes further in showing that the harm to society from legal drugs is many times the harm from illicit drugs. For example, alcohol use is estimated to result in loss of 257 disability adjusted life year per 100,000 of population compared with just 83 for illicit drugs.
There are huge regional differences in use of addictive drugs. The heaviest drinkers are in Eastern Europe where 13.6 liters of alcohol is consumed per head of population each year, followed by Northern Europe at 11.5 liters. Central, Southern and Western Asia have the lowest consumption at 2.1 liters.
Eastern Europe also has the most smokers at 30 percent of adults, closely followed by Oceania at 29.5 percent and Western Europe at 28.5 percent. This compares with Africa at 14 percent. North and Central America with the Caribbean have the highest rates of injecting drug use at 0.8 percent, which is more than twice the rate in Northern Europe at 0.3 percent.
The authors of the report note that there are important limitations to the data, more so for illicit than legal drugs, but believe that putting all this information in one place will make it easier for governments and international agencies to develop policies to combat this scourge.
Lead author Linda Gowing of University of Adelaide said that bringing all this data together has been very challenging but having this global snapshot in one accessible resource should prove invaluable for policymakers and researchers.
The study is published in the journal Addiction.