Enjoying wine responsibly and in moderation is consistent with a healthy lifestyle for most adult people. It is not the alcoholic beverages consumption per se that is the problem; it is the harmful use of alcohol and its impact on others that needs to be addressed.
It is not only the amount of alcohol that is important, but also the drinking patterns. The consequences of drinking alcoholic beverages often depend on the pattern of drinking: heavy or abusive drinking patterns will increase health risks, while there is not only less risk but even some reported health benefits for many adult people from moderate drinking.
There are actual relevant differences in the drinking patterns in Europe and around the world, as the consumption patterns of the different alcohol beverages are strongly influenced by cultural factors. The very different drinking patterns in different areas of the world are part of very different traditional lifestyles.
The vast majority of people who drink wine do so in moderation and responsibly. While overall consumption of wine has decreased in Europe (by 15 mill hl over the past 20 years, with more than 20% decrease in the traditional wine producing countries since 1996) Europeans are increasingly purchasing wines of higher quality and are consuming in a more responsible and moderate way, associated with diet and gastronomy, in a home or restaurant environment.
Understanding complex regional and cross - cultural determinants
Traditionally, most European cultures consider wine a refined choice, a view which is consistent with moderate consumption. While wine consumption in the EU has fallen considerably over the past 20 years, among young people, for example, there has been a gradual increase in the misuse of alcoholic beverages, particularly in the form of “binge drinking” (repeated heavy drinking, more than five standard drink units at a time, with the purpose of getting drunk).
This trend highlights the importance of analysing drinking patterns and the need to promote responsibility and moderation when consuming alcoholic beverages.
The European Comparative Alcohol Study (ECAS) compared the alcohol consumption and drinking patterns in 14 European countries and found considerable differences. While the European Mediterranean region accounts for the highest alcohol consumption per capita, drinking patterns that pose fewer health risks can be observed there: for example, alcoholic beverages are primarily consumed at home with meals, not in bars/restaurants and not without food. Considerable national variations with regards to “binge drinking” exist as well. For example, 34% of Irish respondents said they usually binge drink, compared to only 2% of respondents in wine-producing Italy and Greece, and 4% in Portugal.
In fact, harmful drinking patterns are considerably less common in predominantly wine producing countries, where wine is consumed more regularly, almost exclusively with meals and the volume of alcohol consumed at each drinking session tends to be much lower than in the Nordic countries, the UK and Ireland, which have the highest levels of binge drinking.
Furthermore, enormous cross-cultural variations in the way Europeans behave when they drink exist. In some societies, alcohol misuse is often associated with violent or anti-social behaviour, while in others drinking behaviour is generally harmonious. These differences are partly related to inconsistent cultural beliefs about alcoholic beverages, expectancies regarding the effects of alcohol, and social norms regarding drunkenness (ECAS final report, 2002).
It is well documented in the ECAS 2 study that the traditional method of only considering the per capita alcohol consumption within a country’s population and neglecting the drinking patterns is not necessarily the decisive factor for alcohol related harm. A better understanding of individual drinking patterns, particularly among young people, is required in order to be able to suggest solutions that could minimise alcohol related harm.
Evidence-based research which examines drinking patterns as well as the motivation to drink the different alcoholic beverages in different local cultural contexts can contribute successfully to curbing alcohol abuse and misuse.