updated 12/9/2006 12:56:03 AM ET 2006-12-09T05:56:03

Alcohol is now the leading killer of Finnish adults, with consumption reaching an all-time high last year in the Nordic nation, officials said Friday.

More than 2,000 people between the ages of 15 and 64 were killed by alcohol poisoning or illnesses caused by alcohol consumption last year, the government’s leading welfare and health agency said. Nearly 1,000 people died in accidents or violent incidents caused by alcohol.

“This is truly a worrying trend,” said Kristiina Kuussaari of the National Research and Development Center for Welfare and Health. “The serious negative effects will continue to grow for years to come.”

Alcohol was responsible for 17 percent of all deaths among 15-to 64-year-old men, surpassing heart disease for the first time, the agency said. Alcohol also caused more than 10.5 percent of all deaths in adult women, alongside breast cancer, for the first time.

Since 2003, the cost of treating alcohol-related illnesses has grown by 14 percent, peaking at $1.1 billion last year in this nation of 5.2 million known for heavy drinking.

The government has traditionally kept a tight control on alcohol consumption with high prices in its Alko monopoly retail outlets, and supermarkets do not sell beer with higher alcohol content.

However, in March 2004 it slashed alcohol taxes by more than 40 percent to discourage growing “booze cruises” to Russia and neighboring Estonia, where alcohol is much cheaper.

The move caused an outcry from health officials who warned of negative health effects, and police who reported a rise in public drunkenness and anti-social behavior.

Officials reported a 10 percent growth in binge drinking among 17-year-olds in the first six months after the tax cut, and general consumption began to grow, reaching new records.

Last year, Finns drank the equivalent of 14.5 million gallons of pure grain alcohol — a 14 percent increase from 2003, just before the alcohol taxes were slashed.

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