European Drinking Threatens the Health of a Continent

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July 23, 2017
|   Updated:
January 2, 2021

According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol consumption should be limited to an average of two drinks per day for men (one for women). Failure to observe these guidelines is associated with increased risk of a variety of negative medical outcomes, including several forms of cancer.

Alcohol Consumption in Europe

That’s bad news for many Europeans, widely accepted to be the heaviest drinkers in the world. In fact, a recent study published by United European Gastroenterology reports that the average European faces a 21% increase to their likelihood of colorectal or esophageal cancer.

This increased risk to European drinkers has a fairly obvious cause: they’re simply drinking too much. Per capita, Europe consumes nearly three times as much alcohol as America. Each day, Europe consumes enough alcohol to give each adult in the European Union two drinks. Annually, the average European citizen consumes 11.2 liters of alcohol. For comparison, consider that the average citizen globally consumes just over 6 liters per year—nearly half as much.

Prevention Methods for Excessive Drinking

Critics abound, questioning European culture with its permissive view of excessive drinking and raising calls for state intervention into Europe’s collective drinking problem. Most call for an approach that would seek to minimize drinking through political and policy decisions. According to Dr. Markus Peck of the Klinikum Klagenfurt Hospital in Austria, “political action like minimum pricing and reducing access to alcohol needs to be taken now to prevent many future casualties.”

It’s unclear how effective such approaches may be; routine drinking may be so embedded in European culture that the phenomenon proves difficult to uproot. Indeed, critics of a top-down approach point out that policy tactics — things like increasing prices, raising the legal drinking age, and minimizing permissible sales hours — may not actually affect drinking rates much at all, and may instead simply drive the behavior underground, exacerbating the problem.

As data comes in, time will tell what approaches are most effective; already, Lithuania is dramatically overhauling its positions on alcohol: soon, advertising bans will take effect, the drinking age will increase by two years, and stores will be prohibited from selling alcohol after 8 p.m. That’s important, because Lithuania is the heaviest-drinking country in the heaviest-drinking continent on earth: the average Lithuanian downs over three drinks per day.  If measures proposed to curb consumption work there, it’s possible the rest of Europe will follow suit.

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