Overall alcohol consumption drops, binge drinking skyrockets

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has published a big 20-year report on alcohol use in industrialised countries. Overall in Europe, and also in Belgium specifically, people seem to be drinking less alcohol. Worryingly though, episodic heavy use (also known as binge drinking) seems to be on a steady rise. Especially teenage girls seem more prone to alcohol abuse.

The report declares that, on average, alcohol consumption in the industrialised world fell 2,5% between 1992 and 2012. In Belgium, the drop was even steeper at about 18%. Especially in Italy and France, alcohol use plummeted with a 42% and 23% decline respectively. In some countries, though, people have been drinking more and more: Russia saw an almost 60%-increase, as did Estonia.

These days, the average Belgian drinks about 10 litres of alcohol each year. Our country is in the middle range with this figure. It is slightly less than 'leaders' Estonia, Austria and France (11-12 litres), but still a lot more than Italy, Iceland and Norway (around 6 litres), who are at the bottom of the list.

Beer, wine, or spirits?

With these numbers, one has to take the type of beverage into account though. There are some remarkable differences between countries here. Belgians mostly drink beer by far, then wine, then spirits and other alcoholic beverages. These proportions are completely different in for example France, where people drink the most wine in all of Europe (over three times as much as beer). The Russians drink the most spirits by a long shot, more than beer and wine combined, which is about 5 litres a year on average.

This last fact makes the Russians the most risky drinkers. It's the only country with a 5/5 risk score ('most risky'). In Europe, the next most dangerous score is only 3/5 ('medium risky'). 3/5 countries include the UK and Ireland, where total alcohol consumption is far above average, and spirits are fairly popular. Our country only scores 1/5, counting Belgians among the 'least risky' drinkers.

Binge drinking

Despite the declining trend, OECD is worried about the rise of binge drinking. Especially youngsters frequently have more than five drinks at social gatherings nowadays, which is considered binge drinking. The organisation thinks this is due to the increased affordability of alcohol, and to alcohol industry marketing campaigns that are specifically targeted towards a younger public.

Especially teenage girls seem to have become more prone to over-drinking compared to 20 years ago. The figures aren't particularly different in Belgium than in other countries, but we are one of the few where the legal drinking age for beer and wine is 16 instead of 18.

Deaths and taxes

Evidently, more drinking increases the risk of alcohol-related accidents and deaths. Currently, Belgium is again in the mid-range here, with about 4.5% of all-cause deaths being potentially alcohol-attributable. Shockingly, the Russians are at no less than 30.5%, followed by the Estonians at 21.4%. This is an incredible difference with number 3, Slovenia, with 8%. We could do a lot better though, like the Italians, who are below 2%.

OECD determined that alcohol abuse is increasingly becoming the problem of a small group. The organisation calculated that, on average, only a fifth of the total population accounts for 50% to 80% of all alcohol consumption. Even though several studies have shown that moderate alcohol use can be a good thing, OECD is urging governments to keep taking measures to limit drinking, for example by increasing excise taxes. In Belgium, especially spirits are highly taxed. Wine and beer are only moderately levied.