WHO ATLAS-SU 2010: Global report on substance use disorders

WHO ATLAS-SU 2010: Global report on substance use disorders

To better prevent and treat alcohol and illicit drug use disorders, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched the first global report on resources currently in use to respond to these health concerns in December 2010.

The Atlas on substance abuse:

Resources for the prevention and treatment of substance use disorders has collected information from 147 countries, representing 88% of the world's population. It has a particular focus on low- and middle-income countries.

"Alcohol and illicit drugs are harming millions of people in many ways, from becoming dependent on such substances to causing a range of other health problems, such as injuries, cardiovascular diseases, HIV and hepatitis C or cancers," says Dr Shekhar Saxena, director of WHO's Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Dr Saxena adds: "WHO's new Atlas on substance abuse lays out what resources exist today in different parts of the world to reduce this harm, and highlights critical gaps in service delivery which should be overcome."

The report analyses issues such as levels of government funding, staffing, policies, legislation and information, detailing measures that meet health needs for people with substance use disorders, and highlighting gaps and challenges.

Key findings of the Atlas include:

  • Many more people suffer from alcohol use disorders compared to drug use disorders, and both types are more common in men than women.
  • Alcohol causes the highest demand for treatment of substance use disorders in most WHO regions bar the Region of the Americas, where treatment demand is mainly for cocaine use disorders.
  • Alcohol kills every year 35 people and illicit drugs kill four people per every 100,000 people
  • Two-thirds of countries have a government unit or official responsible for treating substance use disorders, and under 50% have a specific budget for treating such disorders
  • In Africa, out-of-pocket payments are the main funding method for treating alcohol and drug use disorders. Africa is also the only WHO region with the fewest countries with substance abuse policies.

The Atlas attempts to understand the scale of and reasons for gaps in treatment of substance abuse disorders. A shortage of resources is a clear reason for gaps. More effort is needed to collect data on treatment services to better plan such services. Governments need to invest financially and dedicate staffing and other resources to provide effective services to prevent and treat substance use disorders. Civil society groups are also needed to keep delivering care to people in need.

Alcohol, illicit drugs and other psychoactive substances alter the brain's function and structure, affecting mood, perception and consciousness. Psychoactive substance use can lead to psychological and psychosocial problems, employment loss, legal issues and difficulty in participating in education. Substance use disorders include dependence syndrome and harmful use of psychoactive substances.

The Atlas is the latest in a range of tools produced by WHO to improve the prevention and treatment of substance use and other mental and neurological disorders in developing countries. These tools are part of the WHO Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP).

Other key details from the Atlas include:

  • Alcohol and illicit drug use account for 5.4% of the world's annual disease burden, with tobacco responsible for 3.7%.
  • In 2004, 7.6% of all global burden of disease and injuries among men, and 1.4% among women, were linked to alcohol use.
  • In some Eastern and Central European countries, up to 16% of populations suffer from alcohol use disorders, compared to 10% in some countries in the Americas and South-East Asia, and 13% in some Western Pacific nations.
  • Illicit drugs are used by a minority of the world's population, and 1 in 5 people who use an illicit drug might meet criteria for dependence at some point, according to studies in the United States and Australia.
  • In some countries with high abstention rates, patterns of frequent and heavy drinking among those who drink are being reported, resulting in high alcohol use disorders.


Detection and diagnosis
Human rights
Policy and legislation
Prevention and promotion
Training, education and capacity building
Treatment, care and rehabilitation
Alcohol/drug use disorders
Central America and the Caribbean
Middle East
North America
South America
Children and adolescents
Primary care
Specialist care