I've been having a rather interesting conversation with Silvana, a Romanian friend of mine who works in France. Silvana tells me "I have the impression that almost everybody in Romania drinks. They don't admit they have a problem and they don't go to rehab." Silvana has turned my lifelong assumption that the UK is the heaviest drinking nation on earth on its head.
Having been brought up in Scotland and educated in Liverpool I've seen our binge culture from close up: what other country has alcohol-fuelled street battles every Friday night? Where else do men go out with the specific purpose of getting drunk? Is there another country where women and children are so badly affected by excessive drinking? Surely we are the planet's champion problem drinkers? Where could it be worse?
Now I realise that alcohol in poverty-stricken Central and Eastern Europe is more destructive than in the UK. This is a shock to me as I have spent a lot of time in that part of the world and I've never seen scenes of aggressive drunkenness that one sees every Friday in UK - except in those unfortunate cities like Prague and Krakow where British lads can get paralytic on the cheap. I'd always thought that continental Europeans were a lot more civilised in their drinking habits.
A colleague at the alcohol and drug rehab centre where I work suggested that I look at comparative liver disease (cirrhosis) rates as this is a good indicator of the impact alcohol has on a country. My friend Silvana quickly came back with a Romanian source which shows that the EU member states with the most deaths by cirrhosis were all from Central and Eastern Europe. The list was topped by Romania (with 53 deaths per 100,000 people), closely followed by Hungary, Slovenia, Lithuania and Slovakia. The UK was number 17 on the list, with "only" 12 people per 100,000 dying from liver disease every year.
I turned to the internet to try and make sense of this and came across an article in Forbes which quoted an EU report and put things into context: "Europe is home to the world's heaviest drinkers...Europeans knocked back 79 billion litres of alcohol in 2006, or 101.25 litres for every person... while in the Asia Pacific region, it was just 22.1." These figures are quite old but I'm sure not much has changed since then.
The Forbes article went on to say that "Nearly all the top 15 biggest drinking nations are in Central or Eastern Europe. Poverty and the harsh climate, particularly in Russia, play a part, as does the tradition of drinking." I realised that the big difference between the UK and other parts of the European Union is that drinking in Britain is a very public affair - its effects are visible on the streets - but in many parts of Europe the excessive drinking takes place behind closed doors with the long-suffering family.
According to Ben Baumberg, author of an EU report on drinking habits in the EU, Western European countries have "sobered up" following a binge drinking surge in the 1990s. This is the result of constant public education and stricter rules about alcohol in the workplace. Most Central and Eastern Europe countries lack the resources and political will needed to sustain long term public education campaigns, even though investing in health education saves a lot of money in the long run.
My friend Silvana helped me to understand what was going on in the other side of Europe. She sent me an email describing the situation in her family in Romania: "At every birthday or family reunion there are at least three men getting drunk, speaking nonsense and making their wives ashamed of them. It's a mass phenomena but nobody thinks drinking is really a problem... they say drinking makes you forget your problems and gives your brain a rest."
As a Brit, I feel better now that I know that other countries also suffer from excessive alcohol consumption. For most of my life I had always thought that it was us Brits who were the exceptions - only we have the noisy and violent drunks on the streets - but now I realise that other countries also have a massive public health problem with alcohol. It's just different. This realisation brings to mind the old expression "a problem shared is a problem halved."
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