But that is anecdotal evidence based on experience and not cold hard facts. If I'm going to make a strong statement about this "problem" then I owe it to you and to myself to back it up. So I went looking for the report that I mentioned in a prior post. I found it on the Health-EU website and it's called Alcohol in Europe. Let's start by looking at what this report has to say.
Alcohol is big business in Europe. European countries are leading producers of everything from beer to wine and spirits. Alcohol sales generate substantial tax revenue for member-states and also represent a major export. France alone accounted for 24% of world alcohol exports in 2003. This makes for an interesting conundrum because, against all the economic benefits, states also have to measure the social costs of domestic consumption:
Based on a review of existing studies, the total tangible cost of alcohol to EU society in 2003 was estimated to be €125bn (€79bn-€220bn), equivalent to 1.3% GDP, which is roughly the same value as that found recently for tobacco. The intangible costs show the value people place on pain, suffering and lost life that occurs due to the criminal, social and health harms caused by alcohol. In 2003 these were estimated to be €270bn, with other ways of valuing the same harms producing estimates between €150bn and €760bn...Reading this it occurred to me that the best strategy for any state with a large alcohol industry might be indeed to increase exports. That way states derives many of the economic benefits while merrily displacing all the problems (along with the bottles) in someone else's yard.
About European domestic consumption. The good news is that it is slowly coming down. The bad news is that it is still very high. "The European Union is the heaviest drinking region of the world, with each adult drinking 11 litres of pure alcohol each year – a level over two-and-a-half times the rest of the world’s average (WHO 2004)." Here is a chart that shows EU consumption versus other parts of the world:
Consumption peaked in the 1970's and has been slowly declining ever since. Now, this figure of 11-13 liters per person per year is an average. Looking at individual member-states (and even regions within those states) the consumption picture changes dramatically depending on where you are.
But while consumption statistics make for interesting reading, they do not tell the whole story. Within those numbers, how to determine how many of these drinkers are alcohol dependent or who regularly drink at unsafe levels? (the terms "alcoholic" and "problem drinker" seem to vary according to the cultural context). Self-reporting is unlikely to be accurate - what sane individual is going to report a daily consumption of, say, 2-3 bottles of wine? When I was in the U.S. last year I spoke to a family member who works in emergency medicine at a local hospital and he reported that whatever the number of daily drinks reported by the patient, the staff at the hospital multiplied it by 3. They simply start from the assumption that people lie about this on a regular basis and their experience shows that this is a good strategy. The EU report's guess is that "around 5% of adult men and 1% of adult women are alcohol dependent – that is, 23 million people are addicted to alcohol in any one year." Again, this is an average and varies widely depending on the country.
To get a good idea of the direct consequences of that consumption and the alcohol dependency rates, let's look at some numbers that are hard to quibble with: alcohol-related death rates. These can be found in another EU report called Who dies of what in Europe before the age of 65 published in 2009. This report focuses on preventable deaths for males in Europe from things like heart disease, certain forms of cancer and, yes, alcohol use. Here is the map for Alcohol-Related Mortality:
What is fascinating about this map is that France has a upside down u-shaped band of high mortality from alcohol use that starts in Brittany, moves north and comes down through the center of the country where the death rates rival those of Eastern Europe. What in heaven's name is that all about? I'm going to look into it and see if I can find more information. A quick and dirty search of my mental database did not come up with any obvious reason for this. If any of you have links to share or other resources that would point me in the right direction, please feel free to post them in the comments section.
Interesting data and, I think, very convincing. Clearly alcohol is an issue in Europe and one that is getting attention from the EU. See this communication from the European Commission, An EU strategy to support Member States in reducing alcohol related harm, which came out in 2006 for their recommendations for how to tackle the problem.