Causal mechanisms proposed for the alcohol harm paradox-a systematic review

Addiction. 2022 Jan;117(1):33-56. doi: 10.1111/add.15567. Epub 2021 May 25.


Background and aims: The alcohol harm paradox (AHP) posits that disadvantaged groups suffer from higher rates of alcohol-related harm compared with advantaged groups, despite reporting similar or lower levels of consumption on average. The causes of this relationship remain unclear. This study aimed to identify explanations proposed for the AHP. Secondary aims were to review the existing evidence for those explanations and investigate whether authors linked explanations to one another.

Methods: This was a systematic review. We searched MEDLINE (1946-January 2021), EMBASE (1974-January 2021) and PsycINFO (1967-January 2021), supplemented with manual searching of grey literature. Included papers either explored the causes of the AHP or investigated the relationship between alcohol consumption, alcohol-related harm and socio-economic position. Papers were set in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development high-income countries. Explanations extracted for analysis could be evidenced in the empirical results or suggested by researchers in their narrative. Inductive thematic analysis was applied to group explanations.

Results: Seventy-nine papers met the inclusion criteria and initial coding revealed that these papers contained 41 distinct explanations for the AHP. Following inductive thematic analysis, these explanations were grouped into 16 themes within six broad domains: individual, life-style, contextual, disadvantage, upstream and artefactual. Explanations related to risk behaviours, which fitted within the life-style domain, were the most frequently proposed (n = 51) and analysed (n = 21).

Conclusions: While there are many potential explanations for the alcohol harm paradox, most research focuses on risk behaviours while other explanations lack empirical testing.

Keywords: Alcohol consumption; alcohol-related harm; causal mechanisms; disadvantage; health inequalities; morbidity; mortality; socio-economic position.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking*
  • Causality
  • Humans
  • Income*
  • Life Style