A new report from the European Commission has shown big differences in how Europeans drink.
Despite barriers in language and culture, one of the things over which most Europeans can bond is a good drink, and styles of alcoholic beverage are shared and adapted across countries with enthusiasm and creativity. Traditional stereotypes, however, tell us that whilst those who dwell near the Mediterranean enjoy a relaxed, sociable drinking culture that is centred around food, those to the North are more likely to binge drink, with all of the undignified, embarrassing consequences.
But to what extent is this true, and what does it say about the countries concerned? Recent research by Jonas Landberg from the Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs at Stockholm University, seems to corroborate the stereotype, finding that “northern European countries, where drinking into intoxication is more common, tend to have more alcohol-related problems and mortality per litre of alcohol consumed than southern European countries, where drinking is more mundane and integrated into everyday life”.
Landberg arrived at his conclusions by comparing the self-reported level of alcohol consumption amongst 1,000 people in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden and Italy respectively. He found that, although there was a significant relationship between the volume consumed and the risk of experiencing alcohol related problems (physical, behavioural and social) in general, the relationship was generally stronger in the Baltic countries and Sweden where the culture is centred around binge-drinking, rather than frequent moderate consumption.
It can be noted, however, that as his research only considers the volume of alcohol consumption, there is no way of knowing what aspects (e.g. type of alcohol consumed) are responsible for the increased risk factors. It should also be noted that, as the levels of alcohol consumption were self-reported, there is no way to ascertain how truthful they are. If, for example, there is indeed more of a stigma around binge drinking in countries such as Italy, then its inhabitants would perhaps be less likely to report their true consumption than those who have grown up in societies where binge drinking is, if not more accepted, at least more acknowledged.
In any case, it cannot be disputed that a binge drinking culture does exist in many countries, and questions must arise as to the kind of society that could encourage such behaviour. As tempting as it is to think that a modern generation is drinking its recession-hit sorrows away, reports by the Institute of Alcohol Studies show that Northern European cultures have been indulging in heavy drinking sessions – and drinking just to get drunk – since Viking times.
The Institute subscribes to the prevailing theory that the reason for the North-South divide in drinking cultures is that whilst the Mediterranean lifestyle involves regular wine drinking with meals, the Northern countries drink less often but consume far more – particularly beer and spirits – when they do. By taking alcohol consumption of a family setting, a culture of excess as fun is encouraged, fuelled by alcohol suppliers seeking to make a profit with cheap alcohol offers, late-opening bars and the promotion of drinks as trendy lifestyle brands.
However, recent events have suggested that this cultural divide is breaking down. In 2009 it was widely reported that young Italians – who many said had been influenced by the British culture – were engaging in wide-scale alcohol abuse. According to an article published in the Telegraph, “(in Italy) the number of diagnosed alcoholics has tripled in the last decade to around 60,000 out of a population of 60 million….and two thirds of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 15 drink to excess. Milan recently introduced an emergency law under which it will impose a €900 fine on the parents of under-age drinkers.”
This evidence suggests that young people, perhaps s influenced by increased cross-culture technology use, are breaking down traditional stereotypes and engaging in risky alcohol behaviours regardless of the country they come from. If the North/South divide is to be completely eroded, further research is needed into how the over-arching culture of alcohol abuse, rather than enjoyment, can be mitigated.