Europe: Home of much natural beauty, old traditions and booze. Lots and lots of booze.
Yes, all but one of the World's 15 Heaviest-Drinking Countries are in Europe, a continent where cultural traditions — and tax policies on alcohol — die hard.
Our top 15 listing comes from a 2006 survey by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, which tracks per capita alcohol consumption around the globe. Rankings are based on the number of liters of pure alcohol consumed per person per year, from beer, wine and spirits combined (the three have progressively higher percentages of alcohol content).
Luxembourg, where residents pound down 15.5 liters of alcohol in a year, on average, ranks first. Close behind are France (14.2 liters), Ireland (also 14.2 liters, a lot more of it from beer), Hungary (12 liters) and the Czech Republic (11.8 liters).
A 2006 study by the Weinberg Group, a consulting firm that reported findings of several published health officials on alcohol use in Europe, showed that Europe generally has greater tolerance and acceptance for drinking than the rest of the world does, with alcohol used more in social settings and at family meals.
"A number of social, political and cultural factors have been reported to influence drinking behavior," the report concluded. Among them: traditions that have young and old imbibing around the dinner table and at social events, and varying levels of alcohol taxes in different countries.
Luxembourg taxes beer at just .02 euros per pint, lower than any European country other than Cyprus and Latvia. It has no excise tax on wine. The European Union is generally very friendly to the continent's vintners, supporting minuscule taxes in order to support consumer purchases. According to reports, the E.U. deemed illegal a recent attempt by Sweden to impose a higher tax, asserting levies on wine cannot exceed those on beer, lest they hurt the domestic wine businesses while, in this case, benefiting Sweden's brewers.
But taxes are apparently just a small piece of the picture. When Denmark turned to higher alcohol taxes a decade ago, the result was only a limited drop in demand. The country still ranks seventh in per capita alcohol consumption worldwide, at 11.5 liters per year.
Meanwhile, a survey in the publication Alcohol Research & Health shows that 94 percent of 15-year-olds in the Czech Republic identify themselves as drinkers, with almost half saying they've drank beer at least three times over the past month. Drinking figures are similar elsewhere in Europe — 96 percent in Denmark, 89 percent in Ireland and 91 percent in the U.K.
The Czechs, who after all invented Pilsner, lead the world in annual beer consumption with over 150 liters per person. That's about twice the U.S. rate. A potential reason for the extra drinking on the east side of the Atlantic: No country making the list has a legal drinking age over 18; with some as low as 16 for beer. The minimum legal age in the U.S. is 21.
Not all surveys on drinking frequency over the years necessarily match each other's findings. A 2004 study commissioned by the World Health Organization, for example, had countries like Russia and Switzerland sneaking past some on the OECD list, like Belgium and Australia. But the results were mostly similar.
Worldwide, the W.H.O. asserts that some 2 billion people use alcohol at one time or another, with approximately 76 million deemed to have a problem. Its 2002 World Health Report blamed liquor for 1.8 million deaths, including about 200,000 in the European Union, along with 20% to 30% of all liver disease, auto accidents and epilepsy seizures.