Among the 10 countries that drink the most in the world, nine are in the EU. But there are big differences between nations.
If you feel that Europeans drink a lot, your hunch is correct: people across the continent consume more alcohol than in any other part of the world.
Each year in Europe, every person aged 15 and over consumes, on average, 9.5 litres of pure alcohol, which is equivalent to around 190 litres of beer, 80 litres of wine or 24 litres of spirits.
That’s according to the 2021 European health report by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Total alcohol consumption per capita decreased by 2.5 litres (21 per cent) between 2000 and 2019 in the WHO European Region, which covers a vast geographical area of 53 countries including Russia and former Soviet states like Moldova.
But people continue to drink, especially in Western Europe. Out of the 10 countries that drink the most in the world (and adjusting for tourist consumption), nine are located in the European Union (EU).
In 2019, 8.4 per cent of the EU adult population (15 years or older) consumed alcohol every day, 28.8 per cent drank weekly, and 22.8 per cent monthly, while 26.2 per said they never consumed alcoholic drinks or hadn’t consumed any in the last 12 months.
Between EU countries, there are large differences in estimated alcohol consumption, but one trend remains prevalent: men drink more than women: 13.0 per cent of men vs. 4.1 per cent of women drink alcohol every day; 36.4 per cent of men vs. 21.7 per cent of women drink every week.
The largest gender drinking gaps are in Portugal (33.4 per cent of men drink daily vs. 9.7 per cent of women) and Spain (20.2 per cent vs. 6.1 per cent).
Which country drinks the most in Europe?
In 2019, the top 10 European countries with the highest alcohol consumption per capita were Czechia (14.3 litres), Latvia (13.2), Moldova (12.9), Germany (12.8), Lithuania (12.8), Ireland (12.7), Spain (12.7), Bulgaria (12.5), Luxembourg (12.4), and Romania (12.3).
The top 10 countries that consume the least alcohol across the WHO European Region are Tajikistan (0.9 litres), Azerbaijan (1.0), Turkey (1.8), Uzbekistan (2.6), Turkmenistan (3.1), Israel (4.4), Armenia (4.7), Kazakhstan (5.0), Albania (6.8), and North Macedonia (6.4).
It’s worth noting that most countries in this list, except for North Macedonia, Armenia and Israel, have Muslim-majority populations, for whom the consumption of alcohol is prohibited and condemned.
By contrast, within the EU, not a single country has an annual per capita consumption of fewer than five litres of pure alcohol, in fact, only five countries are below an annual per capita consumption of 10 litres: Italy (8.0), Malta (8.3 litres), Croatia (8.7), Sweden (9.0) and the Netherlands (9.7).
Europeans drink a lot, but how often?
Data shows that as people get older, their daily intake of alcohol also increases.
People aged between 15 and 24 are the smallest group in the daily drinker statistics (representing only 1 per cent), while those 75 or older are more likely to have a drink every day (16 per cent).
However, the senior group also has the biggest share of people who do not consume alcohol at all or have not consumed it in the past 12 months (40.3 per cent).
In the EU, drinking every day is most frequent in Portugal, with a fifth (20.7 per cent) of the population consuming alcohol daily, followed by Spain (13.0 per cent) and Italy (12.1 per cent). The lowest share of daily drinkers is around 1 per cent in Latvia and Lithuania.
The EU country with the biggest share of its population drinking alcohol on a weekly basis is the Netherlands (47.3 per cent), Luxembourg (43.1 per cent), and Belgium (40.8 per cent).
Croatia has the highest share of the population (38.3 per cent) saying it never consumed alcohol or has not consumed any in the last 12 months.
Across all European countries, there are clearly many more women than men staying away from alcohol.
Women are the most sober in Italy, where 46.7 per cent say they never consume alcohol or have not consumed any in the last 12 months (compared to 21.5 per cent of men). In Cyprus, that figure stands at 44.2 per cent of women vs. 12.8 per cent of men, and in Bulgaria at 42.0 per cent of women vs. 16.2 per cent of men.
Heavy drinking episodes, compared
Some EU countries have more heavy drinking episodes than others.
Heavy drinking is defined as ingesting the equivalent of more than 60 g of pure ethanol (approximately six standard alcoholic drinks) on a single occasion.
Almost one in five Europeans (19 per cent) reported having heavy drinking episodes at least once a month in 2019.
The biggest shares of adults taking part in heavy drinking episodes at least once a month were found in Denmark (38 per cent), Romania (35 per cent), Luxembourg (34 per cent), Germany (30 per cent) and Belgium (28 per cent).
Interestingly, some countries where a significant share of the population drinks alcohol every day, such as Spain and Italy, rank very low on the heavy drinking scale, with 6 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively.
Eurostat says regular risky single-occasion alcohol consumption is disproportionately more prevalent among men. Likewise, the percentage is higher among those with an upper secondary and college/university education and the highest incomes.
How much do people drink in the UK?
Because the United Kingdom left the EU in 2020, the island nation is no longer included in Eurostat data.
However, British people have a reputation for being heavy drinkers. So, how do their drinking habits compare with the EU?
According to Drinkaware, an independent charity which produces yearly reports about alcohol consumption in the UK, 57 per cent of British men, and 47 per cent of women, consumed alcohol at least weekly in 2020.
The average, 52 per cent, is over 23 percentage points higher than the average share of Europeans (28.8 per cent) who reported drinking once a week in 2019.
Fourteen per cent report never drinking (vs. 26.2 per cent in the EU).
How many drinks are safe?
There is no safe level of drinking, according to the WHO. And not drinking alcohol is the only way to avoid its damaging effects.
However, governments have issued guidance on low-risk consumption.
Canadians, for example, were recently told by the National Centre on Substance Use and Addiction to limit themselves to just two drinks a week. That’s a dramatic cut from the previous recommendation that allowed 10 drinks a week for women and 15 drinks a week for men.
Europe is more permissive than Canada, and the guidelines are relatively similar from one EU country to the next.
Belgium, for example, says the limit is 21 standard glasses per week for a man and 14 for a woman, whether these are half-pints of beer or small glasses of wine.
Ireland, however, advises a maximum of 17 standard weekly drinks for men and 11 for women.
Bulgaria and the Netherlands say the daily recommended limit is either one glass of wine, one beer or 50 ml of spirits.
Germany says the maximum tolerated daily dose for men is 24 g of alcohol, which is equivalent to either 500 ml of beer (one pint), 250 ml of wine (a large glass of wine), or 60 ml of liquor. Women are advised to drink half as much.
Estonia recommends at least three alcohol-free days per week, and not saving up on daily alcohol intake to then only binge later on.
Luxembourg and Cyprus advise favouring wine and beer over spirits. Norway says alcohol should not exceed 5 per cent of your total caloric intake.
The UK’s NHS recommends drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread across three days or more. That’s equivalent to around six medium-sized (175-ml) glasses of wine, or six pints of beer with 4 per cent alcohol content.
Because women have less body water than men of similar body weight, they absorb and metabolise alcohol differently. This means that, in general, women have higher concentrations of alcohol in the blood after drinking equivalent amounts of alcohol.
The deadly toll of alcohol
The WHO links alcohol to 30 per cent of deaths from unintentional injuries, such as drowning and road traffic accidents, and to 39 per cent of deaths from intentional injuries, such as suicide and homicide.
Drinking is also associated with unsafe psychological and social consequences, including initiating young adults into other substances and unprotected sex, which ultimately play a role in the transmission of diseases, such as HIV and viral hepatitis.
The WHO estimates that alcohol causes almost 1 million deaths annually across the WHO European Region, and 3 million deaths worldwide.