Latin America – The Dangerous Addictions

March 15th, 2012
in Op Ed

by Elliott Morss

addiction-skull-smokingSMALLA couple of years back, I asked what do humans spend the most on for entertainment.  The answer is drinking, sex, and illegal drugs. More recently, I tried to determine the most dangerous human addictions.  For this, I used DALYs (the Disability-Adjusted Life Years), a statistic recently developed by the World Health Organization.  It measures years lost both because of a premature mortality and years lost due to time lived in less than full health.  From the analysis of DALYs, I concluded that Alcohol, Tobacco, Overeating (Overweight, Obesity), and Illegal Drugs are the most dangerous addictions.

Follow up:

Table 1 provides the per capita DALYs for selected regions. The DALYs for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are amazing. This region has much higher rates on all four dangerous addictions than any other region in the world. Countries in the CIS are: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

Table 1. Dangerous Addictions – Per Capita DALYs, 2004

Source: WHO

While the problems in Latin America are not as serious as in the CIS, DALYs are higher there than the world average on all but tobacco use. In what follows, addictions in the leading Latam countries are examined.


Table 2 provides data on alcohol consumption for the age group 15-59 in leading Latin American countries. (In this and the following tables, the United States is included for reference). Argentina has the highest per capita ranking, but this is largely due to the fact that a greater percentage of the adult population consumes alcoholic beverages (83%) than in the other countries.

Table 2. – Annual Per Capita Alcohol Consumption (in liters)

Source: WHO

However, when we look only at drinkers, we get a very different picture. As Table 3 indicates, more alcohol is consumed per drinker in Ecuador than in any other country. Ecuador is notable in that it is the only Latam country where women who drink appear to consume more alcohol than men.

Table 3. – Liters of AlcoholConsumed per Drinker (annual)

Source: WHO

What do these figures mean in terms of daily consumption? 30 liters of alcohol consumed annually is the equivalent of daily consumption of 5.4 cans (12 oz.) of beer or almost a bottle (.75 liter) of wine, or more than 5 shots (44 ml/shot) of spirits.

Table 4 gives the breakdown on the types of beverages consumed in Latam countries. Wine is only preferred in the two leading wine producing countries – Argentina and Chile. Beer is the preferred beverage in all the other countries except Peru where the locals favor their Pisco brandy.


Table 4. – Beverage Preferences, 2005

Source: WHO


Nicotine is an addictive killer. Nearly half of all heavy smokers die from smoking. Data on Latam countries are presented in Table 5. While the overall average is higher in Chile than elsewhere, more than 50% of men in Argentina, Peru, and Mexico smoke. In all cases, men smoke more than women.

Table 5. – Smoking Prevalence, Adults

Source: WHO


Overeating has become a serious addiction worldwide. Elsewhere, I have suggested that this addiction might be the most important dangerous addiction. The UN reports that even in developing countries, there are more obese children than malnourished children. Data on overweight and obese adults in Latam countries are presented in Table 6. Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, and Argentina have the most serious problems. It is notable that obesity among women is higher than among men in all countries. And clearly, when it comes to obesity, the US is in a class by itself.

Table 6. – Overweight/Obese Adults, Prevalence

Source: WHO

Illicit Drugs

The prevalence of use and health problems resulting from illicit drugs is far less than the other addictions. Nevertheless, they remain a threat inasmuch as they are source of income for large and dangerous criminal organizations.  Table 7 provides data on the prevalence of drug use for both adults and young people. Not surprisingly, cocaine use is far heavier than opiates inasmuch as most of the world’s supply of cocaine is produced in Latin America. Argentina and Chile appear to have the most serious drug problems in the area. Most troubling is evidence that youths are using more than adults, a bad augur for the future.

The life style for youths in Latin America is conducive to the use of banned substances. For example, in Argentina, it is common for young people to attend night clubs that open at 1AM and close at 7AM. I quote from a friend who lives in Buenos Aires:

“In a country where people go out to dinner at 11 PM, going dancing after dinner means getting to a club at 1 AM and dancing all night. That schedule is absolutely the norm and has been for decades in BA. The most popular clubs mix live bands, extravagant shows and famous DJs who are stars in their own right playing pulsating, mesmerizing dance music, as part of the entertainment to draw big crowds.”

Not to be prudish, but this is clearly a setting where drinking, smoking and drugs can flourish.

Table 7. – Drug Prevalence, Adult and Youth

Source: United Nations

Summing Up

Each of the dangerous addictions discussed above is serious enough to be considered alone. However, to summarize the importance of the dangerous addictions taken together for Latam countries, I have ranked the countries on all four addictions where a 1 denotes the worst country and 8 denotes the best. The rankings were based on:

  • Drinking – Alcohol Consumed per Drinker
  • Smoking – Overall Prevalence
  • Overweight – Obese Total
  • Drugs – Cocaine - Adult

The results are presented in Table 8. Chile and Argentina tied for having the most serious addiction problems, with both high on smoking and drugs. Mexico was high on drinking and overeating while drinkers in Ecuador consumed the most alcohol.

Table 8. – Dangerous Addiction Rankings, by Country

Of course, a lot of valuable data is given up when you use rankings. And the underlying data can be questioned. However, having been working with this data for some time, I believe Table 8 gives a pretty accurate summary picture of dangerous addictions in Latin America.

Other Posts By Elliott Morss

analysis blog opinion blog investing blog


About the Author

elliott-morss-photo1Elliott Morss has a broad background in international finance and economics. He holds a Political Economy from The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at the University of Michigan, Harvard, Boston University, Brandeis and the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires. During his career he worked in the Fiscal Affairs Department at the IMF with assignments in more than 45 countries. In addition, Elliott was a principle in a firm that became the largest contractor to USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and co-founded (and was president) of the Asia-Pacific Group with investments in Cambodia, China and Myanmar. He has co-authored seven books and published more than 50 professional journal articles. Elliott writes at his blog Morss Global Finance

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1 comment

  1. ECB-Watch says :

    Let me get this straight: as LatAm shows,
    drugs are bad and addictive?



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