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3. What are the drinking habits in various countries?

  • 3.1 How can drinking habits be measured?
  • 3.2 Who are the abstainers?
  • 3.3 Who are the heavy drinkers?
  • 3.4 Who are the heavy episodic drinkers?
  • 3.5 Who is affected by alcohol dependence?
  • 3.6 Who are the young drinkers?

3.1 How can drinking habits be measured?

Alcohol consumption in a population can be measured in two main ways: by analyzing production and sales statistics or by asking people about their drinking habits through surveys.

Production and sales statistics can provide gross figures for a population that can be broken down geographically, but such statistics only take into account officical data.

In surveys, however, each respondent’s drinking patterns are recorded separately and can be related to personal characteristics and behaviours. Different facets of drinking patterns can thus be surveyed for all kinds of population subgroups

Moreover, surveys can reveal:

  • alcohol consumption that is not recorded in official statistics,
  • alcohol-related problems at home or at work that do not show up in official statistics,
  • how patterns of drinking relate to social and health problems at the level of the individual and sub-populations
  • time-trends and effects of policy initiatives

Information on individual drinking patterns can highlight variability over short time periods. For example, heavy episodic drinking might not be revealed by the average number of drinks consumed per day. While long-term consequences of heavy drinking depend mainly on the overall amount of alcohol consumed, accidents and social consequences depend more on individual episodes of heavy drinking.

Some developed countries have established repeated surveys that allow trends in drinking patterns to be monitored in the population as a whole and in subgroups of the population, for example, by sex, age and income. In developing countries, research into drinking patterns is much less common.

This text is a summary of: WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004
 Global overviews, Drinking patterns p.22-24

3.2 Who are the abstainers?

Abstainers are defined as people who abstain from drinking alcohol, either over the year preceeding the survey (last year abstainers) or throughout their life (lifetime abstainers). The figures vary considerably from country to country.

The share of “last year abstainers” in different countries ranges from 2.5% in Luxembourg to 99.5% in Egypt, and the share of “lifetime abstainers” from 9.4% in Latvia to 98.4% in the Comoros. Differences between countries and between sub-populations or regions of a country can largely be explained by the different social roles that alcohol plays. Religion can play an important role in the drinking habits of populations. Predominantly Muslim countries, for example, almost always have a higher level of abstinence. Across cultures, more women abstain from alcohol than men.

Table 6: Rate of last year abstainers among the adult population (per country)

This text is a summary of: WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004
 Global overviews, Drinking patterns p.24-26

3.3 Who are the heavy drinkers?

Heavy drinking is a pattern of drinking that exceeds certain standards that are considered moderate or socially acceptable. It can be defined in various ways, for example:

  • more than a certain amount per day (e.g. more than three drinks per day),
  • more than a certain quantity per occasion (e.g. five drinks on one occasion, at least once a week), or
  • drinking every day.

Surveys from different countries cannot easily be compared, because definitions of heavy drinking vary and because different age groups have been surveyed.

In certain countries, heavy drinkers represent a large share of the drinking population, for instance in Colombia and Georgia, where up to about 50% of male drinkers are considered heavy drinkers. In the UK, about 40% of both female and male drinkers are considered heavy drinkers.

Table 7: Heavy drinkers among the adult population

This text is a summary of: WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004
 Global overviews, Drinking patterns p.26-27

3.4 Who are the heavy episodic drinkers?

The term “heavy episodic drinking”, also referred to as “binge drinking”, tends to be used in different ways in different surveys.

In this study, “heavy episodic drinking” refers to drinking occasions leading to intoxication, often measured as having more than a certain number of drinks on one occasion.

In some countries, such as Ireland and the Republic of Korea, “heavy episodic drinking” is common among both men and women but generally it is more frequent among men. Figures vary greatly between countries, ranging from below 1% in Chinese women to 52% in Nigerian male drinkers. But country figures are difficult to compare because of the different ways in which information is gathered.

Table 8: Heavy episodic drinkers among the adult population (per country)

This text is a summary of: WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004
 Global overviews, Drinking patterns p.28-29

3.5 Who is affected by alcohol dependence?

Alcohol dependence” is defined internationally as:

“a cluster of physiological, behavioural, and cognitive phenomena in which the use of alcohol takes on a much higher priority for a given individual than other behaviours that once had a greater value.”

Alcohol dependence is characterised by a strong desire or sense of compulsion to take alcohol.

Figures for alcohol dependence vary between countries but differences in the measures used to diagnose alcohol dependence make them more difficult to interpret and compare.

Alcohol dependence is consistently higher among men than among women. In some countries, alcohol dependence affects more than 10% of the whole population (men and women combined).

Table 9: Alcohol dependence among adult population (per country)

This text is a summary of: WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004
 Global overviews, Alcohol dependence, p.29-30

3.6 Who are the young drinkers?

Health and well-being of many young people is now seriously threatened by the use of alcohol. There appear to be increasing international trends among the young towards consuming alcoholic drinks for their pleasurable effects and thus towards binge drinking. This trend is even observed in countries such as France and Spain where such drinking patterns were formerly unusual and where the overall level of alcohol consumption is declining substantially. Getting drunk has assumed a disproportionate cultural importance amongst the young. A comparative study carried out in six EU contries showed that the frequency of drunkenness among the young is greater than that of their elders except in Italy. The emergence of alcopops – sweetened, carbonated alcoholic drinks – is also of concern since many are targeted at young people and may act as a bridge to other, stronger alcoholic drinks.

Figures for heavy episodic drinking among young people in different countries vary greatly but cannot readily be compared because age group samples and definitions of heavy episodic drinkers differ between countries, and because the information is gathered in different ways.

Yet, it appears that some countries have a very high proportion of heavy drinkers under the age of 20. For example, in Denmark, up to 62% of all boys and 54% of all girls between 11 and 15 years of age had five or more drinks in one day at least once in the month preceeding the survey.

As for young adults aged 18 to 24, the percentage of young binge drinkers appears to be systematically greater for men than for women.

Table 10: Heavy episodic drinkers among youths (per country)

Table 11: Heavy episodic drinkers among young adults aged 18-24 years old
(per country)

This text is a summary of: WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004
 Global overviews, Youth drinking, p.31-34


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