Europe’s Booze Barometer: Which Nations Are Consuming More Alcohol Than Ever Before?

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Europe's Booze Barometer: Which Nations Are Consuming More Alcohol Than Ever Before?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned, “No level of alcohol is safe for our health.” However, the amount of alcohol we consume remains significant.

Increased alcohol consumption significantly raises the risk of cancer. Health officials urge people to either stop drinking alcohol or at least reduce their intake.

But do we consider these warnings?

Some people abstain from alcohol for the so-called “Dry January.” Figures suggest a decline in alcohol consumption across Europe, but it has been slowing since the 2000s.

How has alcohol consumption changed across Europe in recent decades? Which countries have seen the most significant decrease or increase in alcohol consumption rates?

Per capita consumption of pure alcohol has been defined as the annual sales of pure alcohol per person aged 15 years and older. Alcoholic beverages are converted into pure alcohol. The data does not include non-recorded alcohol consumption, such as homemade or illicit production.

Alcohol consumption in the European region of the EU and WHO has been gradually decreasing.

In the European Union, there has been a decrease of 2.9 liters in total alcohol consumption per capita aged 15 and older over the past four decades, decreasing from 12.7 liters in 1980 to 9.8 liters in 2020, which is a 23 percent reduction.

There was a significant decrease in consumption between 1980 (12.7 liters) and 2000 (10.5 liters).

The rate of decrease slowed down in the next two decades. Between 2010 and 2020, there was a decrease of 0.5 liters in the European Union.

Alcohol consumption in the WHO’s European region, which includes 53 countries including Russia and surrounding countries, decreased from 12 liters in 2000 to 9.5 liters in 2020, which is a decrease of 2.5 liters (21 percent).

Despite this decline, alcohol consumption per capita is still highest in the world in the European region.

In this region, every person aged 15 and over consumes an average of 9.5 liters of pure alcohol annually. This is equivalent to 190 liters of beer, 80 liters of wine, or 24 liters of spirits.

In 2020, periodic alcohol consumption varied from 1.2 liters in Turkey to 12.1 liters in Latvia among 36 European countries including the European Union, Britain, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and candidate countries for the European Union.

On average, citizens of the European Union consume 9.8 liters of alcohol.

In terms of economy and population, wine consumption was highest in Germany (10.6 liters) among the “Big Four” of the European Union, followed by France (10.4 liters), Spain (7.8 liters), and Italy (7.7 liters). In the UK, it was 9.7 liters.

From 2010 to 2020, changes at the country level show a decrease in alcohol consumption in 25 countries, while an increase was observed in 11 countries.

Some minor changes were recorded, but most countries showed significant changes during this period.

In 14 countries, consumption decreased by more than one liter.

During this period, more than one liter decrease in alcohol consumption was seen in 14 countries, while the opposite was observed in 5 countries.

During this period, the highest decrease in alcohol consumption was recorded in Ireland and Lithuania. Both countries saw a decrease of 2.1 liters, followed by Spain and Greece (both 2 liters).

There was also a decrease of more than 1.5 liters in the Netherlands, France, Cyprus, and Finland. Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany also saw a decrease in the range of one to 1.5 liters.

In the European Union, there was a decrease of 0.6 liters in alcohol consumption between 2010 and 2020.

The highest increase was seen in Latvia, where consumption increased by 2.3 liters.

There was also sufficient growth in Bulgaria (1.4 liters), Malta (1.1 liters), Romania, and Poland (both 1 liter). This growth was above 0.5 liters in Norway, Italy, and Iceland.

Since there is considerable variation in alcohol consumption across Europe, observing percentage changes is also a useful indicator.

Greece saw the highest decrease of 24.1 percent, followed by the Netherlands (20.9 percent), Spain (20.4 percent), and Turkey (20 percent).

Ireland, Serbia, Lithuania, Finland, France, and Cyprus also saw a decrease rate of more than 15 percent.

Latvia saw the highest percentage increase at 23.5 percent.

Many European countries have implemented several policies to limit alcohol consumption, such as taxation, bans on alcohol availability, and bans on alcohol advertising.

However, according to the OECD, their effectiveness is hindered by poor implementation at the ground level and limited resources.

Gender and education play a significant role in excessive alcohol consumption.

The consumption of alcohol varies significantly based on gender and education. Instead of quantity, surveys are conducted on the ratio of those who drink alcohol heavily repeatedly.

It includes adults aged 18 and older who had reported consuming 60 grams or more of pure ethanol on a single occasion in the past 30 days. This is original to 6 drinks or further. 

In 2019, in European Union countries, one in five adults (19 percent) reported heavy alcohol consumption at least once a month, a ratio that has remained stable since 2014.

Compared to women, men were more likely to report heavy alcohol consumption in all countries. In 2019, in European Union countries, on average 26.6 percent of men reported heavy alcohol consumption at least once a month, compared to 11.4 percent of women.

The highest ratio of heavy alcohol consumption among men was recorded in Romania (55.2 percent). In Denmark, Luxembourg, Germany, and Belgium, this rate was over 35 percent. 

In Denmark, Luxembourg, Germany, and Ireland, occasional heavy alcohol consumption among women is highest, exceeding 20 percent.

The ratio of heavy alcohol consumption among men and women reflects gender disparities. In 2019, this ratio was 2.33 in the European Union, indicating that for every woman, 2.33 men reported heavy alcohol consumption. This ratio was lowest in Ireland (1.46), Iceland (1.63), and Germany (1.74).

Turkey and Cyprus had the highest gender disparities in heavy alcohol consumption, where this ratio was over 8.

Academic research suggests that gender disparities may be related to various cultural expectations and can reflect traditional gender roles. It may also be associated with differences in employment and lower income.

The tendency for heavy alcohol consumption is lower among people with less education. Why?

The level of education also matters in alcohol consumption. Except for Latvia, in European Union countries, people with lower levels of education are not significantly more likely to engage in heavy alcohol consumption.

On average, 12.5 percent of people with less than upper secondary education reported heavy alcohol consumption, while at least 20 percent of those with at least upper secondary (22.3 percent) or tertiary education (20.2 percent) reported it.

These differences significantly demonstrate higher purchasing power.

According to the OECD’s ‘Health at State of Health in EU Cycle,’ “Alcohol is more affordable for those with higher education and income. However, given the harm associated with alcohol, the burden is greater for those with lower socio-economic status.” -2022 report.

The highest rates of heavy alcohol consumption among people with lower education were observed in Latvia, Greece, Estonia, Bulgaria, and Lithuania.

In these countries, the rate of heavy episodic alcohol consumption among people with lower education was slightly higher than among those with tertiary education.

Is there a safe level of alcohol use?

This is a simple question with a straightforward answer: No, there isn’t.

” We can not talk about a purported safe position of alcohol use. The risk to health from alcohol starts from the first drop of any alcoholic beverage,” explained Dr. Karina Ferreira-Borges, Head of Noncommunicable Disease Management at the WHO Regional Office for Europe and Regional Adviser on Alcohol and Illicit Drugs.

However, the quantity of alcohol still matters.

Ferreira-Borges said,” The only thing we can say for sure is that the more you drink, the more  dangerous it’s or, in other words, the less you drink, the safer it is.” 

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