European Region has heaviest drinking in the world

Countries seek to reduce the harmful use of alcohol

Baku, 13 September 2011

The 53 countries in the WHO European Region meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan from 12 to 15 September 2011 are endorsing a plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. In this Region, alcohol is the second largest risk factor for the death and disease burden, just after tobacco use.

“The harmful use of alcohol is a priority public health concern. The evidence supporting this action plan is large, diverse and persuasive,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “Countries are well aware of the expensive and devastating damage it causes and our action plan is intended to provide them with technical guidance and support on what can and should be done to reduce this harm.”

The WHO European Region is the heaviest drinking region in the world, with a prevalence of heavy episodic drinking in over 20% of adults. Alcohol consumption reportedly decreased during the 1990s, then increased and stabilized at a higher level between 2004 and 2006. Consumption varies greatly among countries, with a European average of 9.24 litres of pure alcohol equivalent consumed per person per year. The overall tendency is that consumption has decreased in western Europe and increased in eastern Europe during the last 15 years, although there are huge differences among countries – see the European status report on alcohol and health 2010.

The European action plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol 2012–2020 gives a comprehensive overview of the problem and provides policy options proven to reduce alcohol-related harm. Policies such as regulating alcohol pricing, targeting drink–driving, and restricting alcohol marketing are known to be effective. The health sector has a central role in recognizing and responding to alcohol problems, but this issue goes beyond the health sector. There is convincing evidence on the efficacy of:

  • alcohol taxes;
  • restrictions on outlet density and on days and hours of sale;
  • a minimum purchase age;
  • lower legal blood alcohol levels for driving and random breath-testing; and
  • brief counselling programmes and treatment for alcohol use disorders.

The harm done by alcohol

Alcohol harms people other than the drinker, whether through violence on the street or in the family, or simply by using up government resources. Most alcohol is drunk at binges, or other heavy-drinking occasions, which worsen all risks as they are a cause of all types of intentional and unintentional injuries, and of ischaemic heart disease and sudden death.

Alcohol use accounted for over six years of difference in life expectancy between western and eastern European men aged 20–64 years in 2002. The amount of alcohol consumed over a lifetime increases the risk of dying from an alcohol-related disorder. There is no safe level of drinking, and in many societies no difference in the risk for men and women. Regularly drinking six drinks (60g alcohol) a day over a lifetime gives an adult a 1 in 10 risk of dying from alcohol.

The total tangible cost of alcohol (costs of health care, production losses, welfare provision, injuries and violence, research and education) to the European Union, as it existed in 2003, has been estimated at €125 billion, 1.3% of gross domestic product. Actual spending on alcohol-related problems accounts for €66 billion of this, while potential production lost due to absenteeism, unemployment and premature mortality accounts for a further €59 billion. Aside from these tangible costs (actual spending on alcohol-related problems of €66 billion and unrealized potential production of €59 billion), alcohol use results in an intangible cost of between €152 and €764 billion.

Europe as a global leader

Europe has been at the forefront of action to reduce the harm done by alcohol. It was the first WHO Region to approve an alcohol action plan in 1992. Today, every European country has some form of alcohol action plan or strategy. Nevertheless, no matter how comprehensive or strict its alcohol action plan, every country will benefit from reviewing, adjusting and strengthening it, using the European action plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol 2012–2020. The five main objectives of the plan build on previous European plans, and align with the WHO global strategy on alcohol, to:

  • raise awareness of the magnitude and nature of the health, social and economic burdens due to alcohol;
  • strengthen and disseminate the knowledge base;
  • enhance capacity to manage and treat alcohol-related disorders;
  • increase mobilization of resources for concerted action; and
  • improve surveillance and advocacy.

For further information, please contact:

Lars Møller
Programme Manager a.i., Alcohol and Illicit Drugs
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Tel.: +45 3917 1214
Mobile: + 45 29610109

Viv Taylor Gee
Communications Adviser
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Tel: +45 3917 1231
Mobile: +45 2272 3691