We examine Europe’s position as the largest consumers of alcohol in the world and ask if that has to be the case.

We all enjoy a drink, whether it’s down at the pub with workmates on a Friday night, enjoying a glass of red wine with a steak, having a few cans over the football match or celebrating a happy occasion with champagne. In fact, for most occasions, besides breakfast, a considerable number of people the world over advocate an alcoholic drink or several as an improvement. Europe is no different; in fact we are leading the way.

Here in the UK, we are quite fond of saying that that mainland Europe has a much healthier attitude to drinking, a continental attitude, and by our own rather low standards I suppose that’s true. When you come from country where 85.6% of the population drink an average of just under 3.5 bottles of wine every week, moderation becomes a rather a loose concept.

Illegal alcohol being poured out during Prohibition, Detroit 1929.| Image: cavemancircus (CC by SA 3.0)

Of course it’s no surprise that people drink a lot, but you would think that in some of the most intellectually and economically accomplished countries of the world we would be able to impose some very basic limits of self-control. It is also far from clear why what is effectively an epidemic of alcoholism would attract less attention from Brussels than, say, the rather confusing attempt to ban open containers of olive oil in restaurants earlier this year. Please don’t mistake me for a prohibitionist – far from it. In fact I think there is a reason why the Netherlands has the third lowest alcohol consumption in Europe: people have an inherent desire for inebriation. Some people who would quite effectively fulfil and manage this desire with a habit of marijuana find themselves unable to deal with alcohol but continue using it as it is the only legal alternative. But I digress. According to a 2011 report from the World Health Organisation, Europeans drink on average 9.5 litres of alcohol per year. This is the highest among world regions and over double the world average. Out of the 28 countries comprising the European Union alone we can boast 5 of the top 10 alcohol consuming countries per person in the world. All but 4 EU members make it into the top 40 worldwide with our newest member, Croatia, coming in at number 11.

Europeans drink on average 9.5 litres of alcohol per year. This is the highest among world regions and over double the world average.

It is widely accepted that Prohibition in the United States was a disastrous, detrimental and intrusive attempt at social engineering. It is, consequently, quite surprising to me that the first antidote to our current predicament is increasing the price in order to punish the consumer into better health. According to the WHO report, ‘one of the most effective strategies for reducing consumption of alcohol at the population level is through increasing alcohol prices’. Now this makes perfect sense, especially with the qualification that ‘such steps can only be effective if the illegal alcohol market is under control’.

Unfortunately, the illegal alcohol market is incredibly difficult to control due to ethanol’s easily synthesizable nature. There is one very simple measure which can control the illegal trade: providing safe and affordable alcohol to the population through legal means. You see something of a catch 22 about this? The best we can hope for here is a trade-off whereby enough tax can be collected to offset the damage done to society by as much as is feasibly possible, i.e. the situation we have. The fact that 35% of the cigarettes smoked in the UK are now untaxed contraband should serve as a warning to those who would use tax hikes as a deterrent (Havoscope).

I posit that there are some potentially effective, non-invasive measures we coul put into place straight away. We could with ease make it a legal requirement for pubs and restaurants serving alcohol to provide alcohol-free alternatives at half the price per millilitre compared to their alcoholic counterparts. We could use tax exemptions to offset any cost to small businesses. Measures like this would encourage bars and pubs to downgrade the centrality of alcohol to their status as social centres. Instead of levying tolls on the consumer in the form of tax, we could put an outright ban on alcohol advertising, the very point of which is to persuade people to buy a product or service which they wouldn’t otherwise use.

The current system of self-regulation by the European Forum for Responsible Drinking, an alliance of Europe’s leading spirits companies to promote responsible drinking in the EU, seems contradictory and counter-intuitive. Surely the last people we want in this position are those who receive a direct financial gain when their mission statement fails?

This September, I started the academic year as I wish to continue and I decided to take a dry month. It is a feat I’ve managed before but it almost always seems to take a certain activation energy to accomplish. The build up towards the beginning of the vow of abstinence is always sown with the suspicion that life will not be quite as much fun as it was before. Now, entering my fourth week, I can quite comfortably say that this concern was once again unjustified.

In order to prepare me I enlisted the help of Allen Carr, famous for his creation of the ‘Easy Way’ method first published in his 1985 book ‘The Easy Way to Stop Smoking’. In his ‘Easy Way to Control Alcohol’ he breaks down many of the myths surrounding alcohol and why we drink it. Looking through his lens it becomes quite easy to see the effective con that alcohol works on people.

There are many times during the book where his rather prohibitionist and over-simplified views can provoke annoyance. For example he describes prohibition’s depiction in contemporary society as ‘the exact reverse of the true picture’. His argument against regulation and control of other drugs is ‘why don’t we actively encourage our children to take heroin?!?’ Of course it is easy to knock down that particular straw man once you’ve set him up, but no sensible advocate of legalisation has ever tried to make the latter point.

Instead of levying tolls on the consumer in the form of tax, we could put an outright ban on alcohol advertising, the very point of which is to persuade people to buy a product or service which they wouldn’t otherwise use.

Mr Carr is also incorrect in the assertion that alcohol can never have any benefits at all: moderate consumption has been shown to have a positive effect on morbidity and mortality, especially with respect to heart disease and strokes. However this brings the annual net death toll due to alcohol down from 2.5 million to 2.25 million, so to sing its praises too much would be misguided. In addition even a single heavy drinking episode per month completely removes the protective effects, so to all intents and purposes we may as well discount the medical benefits as an interesting curiosity rather than an argument for drinking. I am sure there are better ways to improve your life expectancy and general health.

The book is also laced with a rather pompous self-aggrandisement regarding his scientific mind, which would be irritating even if it were not accompanied by errors. Galileo proved rather than proposed the heliocentric model of the universe, and Columbus didn’t really demonstrate the Earth to be spherical: this has been known by intellectuals since Aristotle and Erastothenes calculated the Earth’s circumference by the 2nd century BCE (yes, I am being something of a pedant).

I realise here I have offered more criticism of the book here than compliment, however I do this for a very important reason. One does not have to be an unwavering acolyte to the non-drinking cult in order to see the sense and reason behind much of what is said. It contains for the most part relevant and hard-hitting truths that few of us want to hear but which are immensely helpful in changing one’s attitude to alcohol.

I have been struck by how much the culture of drinking influences people’s desire to do it. My girlfriend, who has joined me for ‘sept-temperance’, met with some curious responses. ‘But you’ll be drinking on my birthday, obviously,’ said one colleague. ‘Oh, that’s not healthy,’ exclaimed another – around four times. It is a strange phenomenon that many people need more than a drink of their own to enjoy a social occasion: it is important that everyone else drinks as well. It is very common and rather insidious and an altogether bad reason to drink in every sense.

For my own part I can say I have thoroughly enjoyed my time off drinking and I hope to continue it into the future. Why not have a go at joining the 58% of people worldwide who have abstained, if only for a while. Just give life without it a try. If nothing else, you’ll save money and get a lot more stuff done.

Cover photo: flickr (CC SA)

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    Michael O'Keeffe is a former editor of Brain and Legs for E&M. He holds a Master's in Chemistry from Oxford University and a PGCE from Christ Church Canterbury University. He is currently a science teacher living in London. He grew up in Northern Ireland before moving to England for university. He enjoys travel, debates and writing about social and political issues.

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