Zakir Naik says,

Today we have come to know that tobacco in any form smoking chewing etc, is the second largest cause of death. The first largest cause of death of is alcoholism. Several billions [sic] of people die every year. It is the single leading cause of death. More than terrorism, more than war. Every year millions of people die. The second largest cause of death is tobacco. According to the World Health Organization, every year more than four million people only because of tobacco.

YouTube video of the talk

Let's assume his use of billions was a mistake, and address the content of the message. Is alcoholism generally worse than smoking on a global scale?

  • 2
    in the US it appears tobacco still wins, world wide however i am unsure, 88k alchoal deaths says cdc cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm and 480k tobacco deaths says cdc cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/…
    – Himarm
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 16:34
  • 8
    Let's start with that number: Several billions - that is more than a quarter of the world's population die every year from alcohol. Within four years we'll all be dead of alcoholism, even those of us who don't drink.
    – glenatron
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 16:51
  • 2
    Do those figures factor in traffic casualties due to driving under influence?
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 19:27
  • 3
    Where did you get the transcript? To me it sounds like he's saying "several millions", though my hearing isn't great. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 20:48
  • 2
    @iamnotmaynard My hearing is great and he does say millions, not billions.
    – user7920
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 13:44

1 Answer 1


The notable claim, strictly speaking, is that alcohol "is the single leading cause of death" (not whether it's generally worse than smoking, the meaning of which is undefined). It seems the World Health Organization says differently. Linked from their alcohol page is the page "Q&A: Is harmful use of alcohol a public health problem?", which features the statistic

In 2012, 5.1% of the global disease burden was due to the harmful use of alcohol, and an estimated 3.3 million people died from alcohol related conditions that year.

Contrast this to the stat on their "Q&A: Tobacco" page:

The tobacco epidemic is the leading preventable cause of death. It kills nearly six million people per year, of whom more than five million are users or ex-users and more than 600 000 are nonsmokers exposed to second-hand smoke.

Ergo, no, it is not.

  • 3
    great post, if you could find anything on traffic deaths related to alcohol that will seal the deal for me.
    – Himarm
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 22:13
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    I always question these stats simply because of how hard it really is to pin point a death due to a single factor like alcohol or cigarettes. Smoking a cigarette is not like a heart attack. One cigarette won't kill you; one heart attack very well can. But a lifetime of drinking can certainly lead to fatal health issues. And doctors don't really ask about how much you drink, but they do ask about your smoking habits. I might be biased. My Uncle died young because he was an alcoholic, but that's not what the coroner said. My Dad's in the same boat; he's just not dead yet.
    – user11643
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 11:08
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    @fredsbend Generally agreed. I think it's the ease at which you can correlate death with the action that informs the WHO's opinion. Imagine a scenario where heavy drinkers tend to die of causes other than drinking (car accidents, secondary drug use, maybe even STDs?). Pure speculation on my part, but at first blush smoking seems easier to directly correlate.
    – windfinder
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 21:53
  • Nice answer. +1 Commented Dec 31, 2016 at 11:05

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