It probably comes as no surprise that where you live, or where you are from, has a role to play in how much alcohol you drink. Most people today believe that the Northern European countries, such as the UK and Ireland, are the ‘worst’ drinkers in Europe; that we are prone to drinking to excess and bingeing. This is in contrast with the opinion that alcohol consumption in Southern Europe is much more moderate. However, it was not too long ago, in fact, that this view was inverted, with us Northern Europeans being considered as the more moderate drinkers.
If we compare today to the 1970s, there has been between a three and five fold increase in the amount of liver-related deaths in the UK whereas in Southern European countries such as Italy and France, this figure has decreased by three to five times. You can see that these changes have crossed over and gone in opposite directions. This shows us that our nations’ drinking cultures are not static but can change over time.
Changes in Southern Europe compared with changes in the UK
So where has this change come from in Southern European countries? The belief about Southern Europe is that these countries often have the culture of having a little drink frequently as a part of everyday life. The changes have come about due to a wider societal change, with increased urbanisation and the subsequent changes in people’s working conditions. There’s also an increased awareness of drinking alcohol and health too.
In contrast, the Northern European countries, including the UK, have moved towards higher alcohol consumption and therefore an increase in alcohol-related harm, which has been explained by the increase in affordability and availability of alcohol. We’ve combined this with the culture of more episodic drinking associated with celebrations and weekends rather than the Southern Europeans who used to drink regularly but only in smaller quantities.
It’s evident that drinking to excess and bingeing is more harmful than the frequent, lighter drinking in the south and this readily explains why the northern countries, including the UK, have had such an increase in alcohol-related illnesses and deaths.
Comparing the UK with the Southern European countries in this way shows us that societal changes across Europe affect each country differently in terms of how much alcohol is consumed and it proves that there is not a direct link between drinking and an improvement in living and working conditions. It is, in fact, indirect, affected by the individual country’s cultural and historical background.
Underage Drinking Across Europe
A recent survey has shown that British children between the ages of 11 and 15 are more likely to have drunk alcohol on a weekly basis compared to the average taken of 36 countries in Europe. There’s also a higher percentage of 15-year-olds in England who first got drunk at 13 years old or before. This puts the UK in the top ten countries in Europe for early drunkenness.
Other surveys have also shown that there is an underage drinking problem in the UK compared with 36 other European countries. In fact, over half of 15-16 Brits said that they have been drunk on at least one occasion, with girls slightly more than boys. The only other countries to ‘beat’ us to the top of this underage-drinking table were Slovakia, Finland and Denmark.
Countries Similar to the UK in their Alcohol Consumption
We are by no means alone in our consumption of alcohol. While most of the Southern European countries drink less, we are actually similar drinkers to some of the Eastern European countries including Poland, Latvia, Slovakia and Hungary. Lithuania, Romania and the Czech Republic were at the top of the table, having approximately 3.2 drinks per day in Lithuania, with 2.4 drinks daily the other two countries mentioned. At the bottom of the list are Italy and Malta, whose inhabitants drink on average 1.3 drinks each day.
So, what now? The UK needs to drastically up its game in reducing the amount of alcohol we consume. Our current consumption levels are some of the most worrying in Europe meaning we have an awful lot of people who are greatly at risk of developing many related conditions and diseases. Let’s not forget that alcohol is a group 1 carcinogen! To change our habits may require cultural and societal changes and that is not going to happen overnight.