There is a popular view that the UK has a problem with alcohol which is not shared by the rest of Europe and that if only we could adopt a more ‘continental’ approach to alcohol all would be well.
This view is certainly not supported by the most recent World Health Organization Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, published in 2018 which shines a light on alcohol harms across the globe. Europe has the highest level of alcohol consumption and the highest prevalence of alcohol use disorders which affect 8.8% of the population aged 15 years and over (alcohol use disorders includes both alcohol dependence (3.7%) and harmful alcohol use (5.1%).
Comparing the UK and France there are many similarities when it comes to alcohol. Of drinkers in the UK 40.6% binge drink compared to 41.5% of drinkers in France. Deaths which result from alcohol use are slightly higher in France for liver cirrhosis and cancer and they are considerably higher for road traffic injuries. And alcohol dependence is a bigger problem in France too with 3.3% of the population affected compared to 1.4% in the UK. When it comes to alcohol we have more in common with France and the rest of Europe than many people think. Rather than looking to ‘the continent’ for lessons in how to drink we need to wake up to just how harmful alcohol really is.
The WHO report tells us that worldwide there are three million deaths (5.3% of all deaths) which occur as a result of alcohol use and 5.1% of the global burden of ill health is also the result of alcohol consumption. These health harms occur in a range of ways ranging from harm to unborn children through Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), transmission of sexually transmitted infections through unprotected sex and through diseases including cancers, cardiovascular diseases and liver disease.
Alcohol harms mental and emotional well being too. Alcohol is linked to depression, epilepsy and suicide. Deaths and injuries occur when people are intoxicated as a result of accidents and alcohol poisoning. Younger people are at greater risk of dying because of alcohol use than older people, partly as a result of the increased risk of death from injuries.
The WHO highlights that “alcohol is the only psychoactive and dependence producing substance with significant global impact on population health that is not controlled at the international level by legally binding regulatory frameworks”.
In the UK, Europe and across the globe we might ask ourselves why should alcohol be treated differently to other substances which lead to dependence and harm health?