27th Feb 2020

And the world's heaviest drinkers are ... Europeans

  • How many is too many? (Photo: Gabriel Gurrola on Unsplash)

A new report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that people in European countries tend to consume more alcohol compared to other regions in the world.

According to this study, released on 4 September, adults in EU member states, Norway and Switzerland drink on average the equivalent of more than two bottles of wine per week.

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However, the consumption of alcohol is not homogeneous across Europe - the lowest level was registered in northern and southern EU member states and the highest in the middle band of countries.

Germany, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania are the heaviest-drinking countries in Europe, while Norway and Italy recorded the lowest consumption of alcohol across the continent.

Across the European population, 30.4 percent of people reported having consumed more than 60g of pure alcohol on one occasion in the last 30 days – this is equivalent to more than five drinks.

The WHO report also reveals that such heavy episodic drinking is a problem in Europe.

Drinking a large amount of alcohol to become intentionally intoxicated, also known as binge drinking, was most common among the adult population in Germany, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Slovenia, and the Baltic countries, while it is least prevalent in Mediterranean countries.

Additionally, the WHO study shows that on average men tend to consume four times more alcohol than women.

The biggest difference in consumption between men and women was found in older age groups (over-65) and among adolescents (15–19), while the narrowest gap was found in young adults (25–34).

Beer is the favourite alcoholic drink of Europeans, followed by wine and spirits.

The consequences

Due to the high levels of alcohol use in Europe, people living in this region have proportionately higher risks of suffering health problems related to alcohol consumption.

In 2016, alcohol killed 291,100 people in Europe, more than ten times the number of traffic accidents in that year - this represents about 800 deaths per day and 5.5 percent of all deaths in Europe in that year.

Of all alcohol-attributable deaths in Europe, 76.4 percent are due to diseases, such as cancer, liver cirrhosis, and cardiovascular disease, and 18.3 percent are caused by injuries, such as road traffic accidents, suicides, and murders.

The report shows that one-in-four deaths among young adults is caused by alcohol.

According to WHO regional director for Europe, Zsuzsanna Jakab, "alcohol is one of the biggest killers of young people".

The impact of alcohol use depends on other risk factors such as tobacco, diet, poverty, and healthcare systems.

According to the WHO report, "people of low socio-economic status had a three-fold mortality risk for causes of death fully attributable to alcohol use compared to people with high socioeconomic status".

Globally about 0.9m injury deaths were related to alcohol, including around 370,000 deaths due to road injuries, 150,000 due to self-harm and around 90,000 due to personal violence.

In Europe, the work of several scholars shows a relevant relation between public violent incidents and alcohol consumption - the proportion was about 50 percent in the UK and ranged from 26 percent to 43 percent in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands.

Policy response

Europe was the first region to adopt an alcohol action plan back in 1992.

However, the consumption of alcohol in Europe has not significantly decreased between 2010 and 2016, even though all EU countries signed the EU Action Plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol 2012–2020.

WHO advisor professor Jürgen Rehm pointed that "trends in alcohol consumption and alcohol-attributable harm are not arbitrary - they are shaped by decisions and action, most importantly alcohol policy".

According to Jakab, policy-makers still need to implement effective strategies, such as increasing prices, limiting availability and banning advertising.

"With as many as 800 people dying every day in parts of the region [of Europe] due to alcohol-attributable harm, we must do more to continue the fight," she added.

EU countries scored low on reducing the negative consequences of drinking and alcohol intoxication, as the alcohol pricing policies are considered relatively low.

However, EU countries were found to be most successful at implementing awareness-raising, drink–driving policies and surveillance policies - which are the easiest to implement, according to the WHO.

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