In rich nations, risky drinking rises even as total drinking declines

A new study finds that risky drinking is up in wealthy nations, even as overall drinking has declined slightly.

A new study finds that risky drinking is up in wealthy nations, even as overall drinking has declined slightly.

(Farouk Batiche / AFP/Getty Images)

In most of the world’s richest nations, 20% of the people are doing 50% to 75% of the drinking, according to a new report on alcohol consumption in 34 countries.

Overall, residents of these countries are drinking slightly less now than they were 20 years ago, the report says. But despite a 2.5% drop in alcohol consumption, risky drinking is on the rise among certain groups -- especially young people and women.

The new report assesses drinking behaviors in countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Many European nations are members of the OECD, as are the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Chile and Israel.


On average, each adult resident of an OECD country drinks the equivalent of 2.4 gallons of pure alcohol per year, sales data show. But the new report estimates that “unrecorded” alcohol consumption raises that figure to a little more than 2.7 gallons per year. (Americans are slightly below the OECD average, with per capita consumption of nearly 2.3 gallons per year.)

For comparison, average consumption for the entire globe is only about 1.6 gallons of alcohol per year.

About one-third of the alcohol consumed in OECD countries is in the form of beer, and another 25% is contained in wine. The rest is served up in spirits and other alcoholic drinks, the report says. In the U.S., people have been drinking less beer and more spirits over the last 20 years.

In general, people with more years of education and more money in the bank are more likely to drink, according to the study. Among women, these attributes also increase the odds of risky drinking. But for men, having less education and lower socioeconomic status means that risky drinking is more likely.

It’s not clear why income and education are linked with hazardous drinking in women but not men. The report speculated that these women “may have better-paid jobs involving higher degrees of responsibility and thus may drink more heavily because they have more stress.” (No word on why men with high-stakes jobs don’t need to unwind with a drink.) Another possibility, according to the study, is that these women don’t actually drink more than their less-educated counterparts -- they’re just more honest about it.

In most countries, rates of binge drinking (downing five to seven drinks in a single session) and hazardous drinking (consuming at least 140 grams of alcohol per week for women or at least 210 grams per week for men) have remained basically flat over the last 20 years. But both types of risky drinking have become more common among teens and young adults through the age of 35, according to the study. This increase has been fueled in part by the introduction of “alcohol products” designed specifically for younger drinkers. Lower prices have also helped make drinking more accessible to younger people, the study says.

Indeed, more people in OECD countries are taking their first drinks at earlier ages. In 2000, 56% of boys and 50% of girls had tried alcohol by the time they were 15. A decade later, the comparable figures were 70% and 57% -- including 43% of boys and 41% of girls who had gotten drunk.

Drinking at any age tends to do more harm than good, but it’s especially hazardous for young people, according to the report. Younger drinkers are more likely to commit violent crimes, drive drunk or endanger their children by drinking while pregnant. They’re also more likely to derail their fledgling careers.

Considering that alcohol use contributes to more than 200 different diseases and types of injuries, there is “a strong rationale for governments to take action against harmful alcohol use,” the report says. Among the suggestions: Policymakers should enact a tax that would raise the total price of alcohol by 10% and consider regulations that would place limits on marketing.

Policies that succeed in getting people to cut back on their drinking could have a big effect on public health. The OECD estimates that reducing consumption by just one unit (the equivalent of 8 grams of pure alcohol) per week would reduce the risk of premature death for 80% of drinkers.

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