Experts have warned that there is no safe threshold for drinking alcohol in terms of health risks.
Kicking back with a drink amid the warm summer heat is a common experience for most Europeans but many remain unaware of the risks associated with consuming alcohol.
Estimated to be a causal factor for more than 200 diseases and injuries, alcohol-related harm is considered a major public health issue in Europe, which has the highest rates of alcohol consumption.
A recent study showed that alcohol-related deaths were increasing for both men and women in the United States. Here’s a look at the situation in Europe.
Alcohol-related deaths remain high
Alcohol-related deaths remain at a high level across European countries, according to multiple datasets from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union’s statistics agency, Eurostat.
In Europe, the highest rates of alcohol-attributable deaths per 100,000 are in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, according to age-standardised data from the latest Global Burden of Disease Study.
The highest rate of alcohol-attributable deaths in the EU was in Bulgaria while the lowest rate was in Malta.
The WHO’s European regional office estimated in 2019 that around 800 people die in Europe every day from alcohol-attributable causes and one in four deaths among young adults is caused by alcohol use.
According to Eurostat data from 2011 to 2020 for 27 EU countries, four alcohol-related causes of death including malignant neoplasms, liver disease and mental disorders, decreased slightly over that time period.
There was also a small decrease in alcohol-attributable deaths in the EU between 2010 and 2016, according to WHO.
In its European region overall, which includes parts of central Asia, “alcohol consumption has been decreasing over the past decades” mainly in the eastern part of the region, according to Dr Carina Ferreira-Borges, regional advisor on alcohol, illicit drugs, and prison health in the WHO’s Regional Office for Europe.
In Western Europe, levels have stayed the same with some countries’ consumption increasing and others decreasing.
Ferreira-Borges explained that overall death rates are linked to general economic improvements and that as the economic situation improves across the region, mortality has decreased slightly, including for alcohol-related deaths.
“This situation can change due to the effects of pandemics, wars and other factors,” she said, adding that it is different depending on the country.
In EU countries, chronic liver disease, which is caused by alcohol consumption, has remained at the same level between 2011 and 2020 while deaths from mental and behavioural disorders related to alcohol use have increased slightly, according to data from Eurostat.
‘Women’s drinking becoming parallel with men’
Overall, men have higher rates of consumption and alcohol-related death than women, but a recent US study found that the rate of alcohol-related mortality was increasing faster for women than it was for men.
Experts who study alcohol consumption patterns said this finding was unsurprising due to changing social habits among women.
“We've known for a while now that middle-aged women (aged 40-50) are drinking more,” said Dorothy Newbury-Birch, professor of alcohol and public health research at Teesside University in the United Kingdom.
Alcohol consumption has become more socially acceptable for women and there is a culture of winding down after work, she said, adding that marketing from the alcohol industry has contributed as well.
It could be down to an increase of “women’s drinking becoming more parallel with men’s,” Newbury-Birch said.
But the situation is different in the US where alcohol consumption levels and mortality have increased over the past 10 years, according to Ferreira-Borges.
Still, while women would experience the same health outcomes as men due to alcohol consumption, for women specifically, “increases in alcohol consumption would also mean an increase in breast cancer cases,” said Ferreira-Borges.
“What is important to note here is that such increases would not be observed immediately, as cancer takes time to develop, but in the next decade,” she said.
Newbury-Birch added that it's important not to stigmatise people over drinking.
"Even though it's increasing amongst certain age groups, certain culture groups, it's not everybody within that group that are doing it. It's not every single middle aged woman who is drinking too much," she said.
"It's just not right to stigmatise a certain group when actually the issue isn't what we're drinking. It's the pressure on us to drink".
‘No safe level of alcohol’
Scientists have not been able to determine a safe threshold for drinking alcohol below which there is no risk to health, the WHO said in January
Consuming alcohol increases the risk of developing cancer substantially, causing at least seven types of cancer, the agency said.
“We cannot talk about a so-called safe level of alcohol use. It doesn’t matter how much you drink – the risk to the drinker’s health starts from the first drop of any alcoholic beverage,” said Ferreira-Borges in an earlier statement.
This was found in aglobal analysis published in the Lancet in 2018 as well.
It determined that alcohol use was the seventh leading risk factor for deaths in 2016 and accounted for 2.2 per cent of female deaths and 6.8 per cent of male deaths.
The European region, being the world’s largest consumer of alcohol, also has the most alcohol-related deaths.
How can alcohol-related deaths be prevented?
Governments should think more long-term about their policies on alcohol, experts told Euronews Next.
A recent report in France found that the government was losing more money due to lives lost and prevention spending on alcohol and tobacco use than it made off of taxes on those products.
The idea that legal drugs, tobacco and alcohol, benefit the state is therefore "unfounded,” the analysis from France’s Observatory of Drugs and Addiction Trends (OFDT) said.
What governments could do, according to Newbury-Birch, is implement a minimum unit cost on alcohol.
“It's really interesting that where alcohol is cheaper, people drink more. There's no doubt about that. The cheaper it is, the more people will drink, the more expensive it is the less people will drink,” she said.
A study published in 2020 found that minimum unit pricing of alcohol significantly decreased deaths and hospitalisations related to alcohol use, using Canadian provinces to compare the data.
They found that introducing a minimum price of 1.50 Canadian dollars (€1.02) per alcohol unit reduced consumption by 4.4 per cent and reduced alcohol-attributable deaths by 5.9 per cent.
It’s also important to focus on primary and secondary prevention, including brief interventions from general practitioners or in hospitals.
“People are surprised that they come into a range that may be risky or harmful because they don't see themselves as… dependent drinkers,” she added.
The WHO has identified three intervention strategies for improving the situation including increasing taxes on alcohol, restricting its availability and banning marketing of it.
“We commend the efforts of countries that have already adopted evidence-backed alcohol policies, resulting in encouraging progress,” Ferreira-Borges said.
“However, it is crucial to avoid any sense of complacency and continue the work to make the European Region safer from harm due to alcohol”.