Alcohol in the European Union: Consumption, harm and policy approaches

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Alcohol is one of the world’s top three priority public health areas. Even though only half the
global population drinks alcohol, it is the world’s third leading cause of ill health and premature
death, after low birth weight and unsafe sex (for which alcohol is a risk factor), and greater than
tobacco. In Europe, alcohol is also the third leading risk factor for disease and mortality after
tobacco and high blood pressure (WHO, 2009).

The European Union (EU) is the region with the highest alcohol consumption in the world: in
2009, average adult (aged 15+ years) alcohol consumption in the EU was 12.5 litres of pure
alcohol – 27g of pure alcohol or nearly three drinks a day, more than double the world average.
Although there are many individual country differences, alcohol consumption in the EU as a
whole has continued at a stable level over the past decade. Alcohol is a cause of
noncommunicable diseases, including cancers, cardiovascular diseases and liver diseases;
communicable diseases, increasing the risks of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and community-acquired
pneumonia; and all types of intentional and unintentional injury, including homicides and
suicides. Alcohol harms people other than the drinker, whether through violence on the street,
domestic violence in the family, or simply using government resources, notably through the costs
of providing health care, unemployment and incapacity benefits, and dealing with crime and

The harms from drinking disproportionately affect poorer people. Socially disadvantaged people
and people who live in socially disadvantaged areas experience more harm from the same dose
of alcohol than those who are better off. Increased spending on social welfare policies can
mitigate the impact of economic downturns and unemployment on increased alcohol-related

The real absolute risk of dying from an adverse alcohol-related condition increases with the total
amount of alcohol consumed over a lifetime. Most alcohol is drunk in heavy drinking occasions,
which worsen all risks, including ischaemic heart disease and sudden death.

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