Adults in Europe consume three standard alcoholic drinks per day on average

Copenhagen, 27 March 2012

People in Europe consume more alcohol – 12.5 litres of pure alcohol equivalent per year on average – than in any other part of the world. How frequently, where and in what context alcohol is consumed influence the effect it has on health. “Alcohol in the European Union”, a new report by WHO co-sponsored by the European Commission, reveals significant subregional patterns of consumption and health effects across the European Union (EU).

“Europe’s dubious honour of having double the global average alcohol consumption has clear, recognized health consequences for drinkers, those around them and society,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “Yet the take home message from this new report is that the alcohol-related burden on health in Europe is avoidable. For every facet of alcohol consumption, this report provides evidence-based conclusions for policy and practice, and I urge countries to review it carefully.”

Regional patterns

Social, cultural, geographic and economic variations in the countries of the EU have led to four distinct country groupings – central-eastern and eastern Europe, central-western and western Europe, the Nordic countries , and southern Europe – with different alcohol consumption patterns and trends.

Total consumption and the indicators of hazardous drinking

Although high in all cases compared to the global average, the breakdown of alcohol consumption by subregion reveals the highest consumption in central-eastern and eastern Europe (14.5 litres of pure alcohol per adult, per year), compared to 12.4 litres in central-western and western Europe, 11.2 litres in southern Europe and 10.4 litres in the Nordic countries.

When, however, these figures are weighted against the indicators of hazardous drinking – the proportion of drinking outside mealtimes, drinking in public places and irregular, heavy (binge) drinking – they reveal a different picture. The Nordic countries have a hazardous drinking score of 2.8 (from a range where 1 is least detrimental and 5 is most detrimental), compared to an only slightly higher score of 2.9 for central-eastern and eastern Europe, and significantly above central-western and western Europe (1.5) and southern Europe (1.1).

Consumption levels over time

Although European consumption of alcohol per capita has remained nearly constant over the past decade, at a subregional level, the Nordic countries and eastern Europe have seen an increase in adult consumption, while this has decreased in western and southern Europe.

Deaths from alcohol

The standardized alcohol mortality rate per 100 000 population across the EU was 57 for men and 15 for women in 2004. Yet subregional mortality rates varied widely, from 129 (men) and 27 (women) per 100 000 in central-eastern and eastern Europe, to the lowest rate of 30 (men) and 10 (women) in southern Europe.

In addition to these general differences, specific drinking tendencies in the subregions influence the causes of death. Deaths from cardiovascular diseases (excluding ischaemic heart disease) and injuries are proportionally higher in central-eastern and eastern Europe, owing to the high overall volume consumed in these countries, together with irregular heavy drinking sessions. In the Nordic countries, deaths from mental and neurological disorders are proportionally higher, owing to the high prevalence of alcohol dependence and alcohol-use disorders. Cancer is proportionally higher in southern Europe, as consumption levels were considerably higher two decades ago and cancer often takes a long time to develop.

Harm to others from alcohol consumption

As well as doing harm to drinkers themselves, alcohol consumption affects others. Again reviewing data from 2004, over 5500 deaths in men of all ages in the EU and over 2000 deaths in women were attributable to drinking by others. By far the greatest number of deaths and harm were the result of transport injuries, followed by violence as a distant second cause.

Southern Europe shows the greatest proportion of harm to others compared to the total alcohol-related harm for that subregion, as measured by deaths. In central-eastern and eastern Europe, however, calculations indicate that a greater proportion of motor vehicle crashes attributable to alcohol harm the drunk drivers themselves.

New report “Alcohol in the European Union”

The report “Alcohol in the European Union” produced by the WHO Regional Office for Europe and the European Commission analyses alcohol consumption patterns, the harm this causes to the health of both drinkers and non-drinkers, and what can be done to improve the health of Europe’s population. A number of cost-effective policies have proven that increased taxes, decreased availability and restrictions on marketing are effective in reducing the harmful use of alcohol. The policy options are all described in the report.

Quick facts

  • Alcohol consumption by adults over 15 years in the EU is more than double the world average. It is the equivalent of 12.5 litres of pure alcohol a year, 27g of pure alcohol per day, or nearly 3 drinks daily.
  • There are over 40 recognized alcohol-use disorders and conditions, including alcohol dependence and the harmful use of alcohol, alcoholic liver disease, alcohol-induced chronic pancreatitis, accidental alcohol poisoning, and fetal alcohol syndrome. There are many more health conditions where alcohol is a contributory cause, such as injuries and deaths from road traffic crashes.
  • One in 10 cancers in men and 1 in 33 cancers in women are alcohol related.
  • In the EU, 11.8% of all deaths in 2004 among those aged 15–64 were due to alcohol, the equivalent of 1 in 7 deaths in men and 1 in 13 deaths in women.
  • A total of 3.3% of all deaths in 2004 among those aged 15–64 were due to alcohol consumed by others.

European action plan on alcohol

The European action plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol 2012–2020, endorsed by the 53 Member States of the WHO European Region in September 2011, is the latest Region-wide policy response to reduce the health burden caused by alcohol. It 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.

For further information, contact:

Lars Møller
Programme Manager a.i., Alcohol and Illicit Drugs
Tel.: +45 39 17 12 14, + 45 29610109 (mobile)

Tina Kiaer
Information Officer
Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Health Promotion
Tel.:+45 39 17 12 50