Friday, March 11, 2011

Alcohol Consumption: Data and Cultural Effects

A chart showing the geographic distribution of alcohol consumption per capita has been making the rounds.

The data was provided by the World Health Organization (WHO). It seems to be a mixture of hard data and estimates so it is not clear how accurate it is. The data in the chart indicates liters of pure ethyl alcohol equivalent in terms of consumption. It is also a three year average over 2003-2005. WHO also presented for 2005 a breakdown of consumption by type of beverage: beer, wine, spirits and other. Beer refers to malt beer, wine refers to grape wine, spirits refers to all distilled beverages, and other refers to all other alcoholic beverages. One can find here a table with all of these numbers.

There is clearly a swath of heavy drinking that spans Eastern Europe and Russia. Perhaps the most interesting data are the top countries in the various categories. There are some surprises. For total consumption the top five are:
Moldova            18.22
Czech Republic  16.45
Hungary             16.27
Russia                15.76
Ukraine              15.60
The leaders in beer consumption are:
Palau                 8.68
Czech Republic  8.51
Seychelles          7.15
Ireland               7.04
Azerbaijan          7.00
There is an opportunity in this data to learn a little geography. Palau is an island nation about 500 miles east of the Philippines.

The leaders in wine consumption are:
Luxembourg  8.16
France           8.14
Portugal         6.65
Italy               6.38
Croatia          5.80
And finally, the leaders in spirits consumption where I found the biggest surprise:
South Korea  9.57
Estonia          9.19
Saint Lucia    8.21
Grenada        7.15
Bosnia and
Herzegovina   7.08
One never thinks of Asia when pondering big-time alcohol consumption, but South Koreans apparently have quite a taste for a drink called Soju. Wikipedia provides us with this information.
“Its taste is comparable to vodka, though often slightly sweeter due to the sugars added in the manufacturing process, and more commonly consumed neat....Though traditionally made from rice, most major brands supplement or even replace the rice with other starches such as potato, wheat, barley, sweet potato, or tapioca....Soju is clear in colour and typically varies in alcohol content from about 18.5% to about 45% alcohol by volume (ABV), with 20% ABV being most common.”
Perusing these data proves to be interesting, but does it tell us anything about the particular countries? When problems associated with alcohol consumption are under discussion the first country that comes to mind is Russia. Yet the Czechs, who are usually considered a sober, well-behaved bunch, consume more alcohol.

Malcolm Gladwell has produced an interesting article in The New Yorker titled Drinking Games. He provides some insight into the manner in which the culture of a society and its drinking habits are intertwined. His chosen subtitle provides a hint as to where he is headed: “How much people drink may matter less than how they drink it.”

Gladwell begins with the tale of a couple, Dwight and Anna Heath, who in the 1950s spent some time in Bolivia with the Camba, a people descended from indigenous Indians and Spanish settlers. The Camba had an interesting social custom. On weekends and holidays they would have what are best described as drinking parties. These were events in which prodigious amounts of alcohol were consumed in the form of 180 proof rum. The manner of consumption was via an endless series of toasts where two participants shared a glass of the liquid. People would drink until they passed out or fell asleep, then wake up and rejoin the party until it ended.

What intrigues Gladwell is that this apparent frat-boy type behavior was not associated with any frat-boy-like social disruptions.
“The Camba did not drink alone. They did not drink on work nights. And they drank only within the structure of this elaborate structure.”

“The Camba had weekly benders with laboratory-proof alcohol, and, Dwight Heath said, ‘There was no social pathology—none. No arguments, no disputes, no sexual aggression, no verbal aggression. There was pleasant conversation or silence’.”

“’The drinking didn’t interfere with work,’ Heath went on. ‘It didn’t bring in the police. And there was no alcoholism either’.”
Gladwell compares the Camba observation with Friday night in a college town.
“On the Brown University—which is to Camba rum what a peashooter is to a bazooka—was known to reduce the student population to a raging hormonal frenzy on Friday nights.”
When the Heaths documented their experience it generated a wave of investigations of the effects of alcohol consumption in various societies. Gladwell quotes a researcher who observed the Mixe Indians in Mexico.
“The Mixe indulge in frequent fist fights, especially while drunk. Although I probably saw several hundred, I saw no weapons used, although nearly all men carried machetes and many carried rifles. Most fights start with a drunken quarrel. When the pitch of voices reaches a certain point, everyone expects a fight. The men hold out their weapons to the onlookers, and then begin to fight with their fists, swinging wildly until one falls down [at which point] the victor helps his opponent to his feet and usually they embrace each other.”
The conclusion to be drawn from these examples is that one cannot examine alcohol consumption outside the context of the cultural constraints under which it takes place. Society can both encourage drinking and provide rules that limit subsequent behavior.

Gladwell indicts our society for doing a lot of encouraging, but no rule setting.
“....frat boys drinking in a bar on a Friday night don’t have to be loud and rowdy. They are responding to the signals sent by their immediate environment—by the pulsing music, by the crush of people, by the dimmed light, by the countless movies and television shows and general cultural expectations that say that young men in a bar with pulsing music on a Friday night have permission to be loud and rowdy.”

“There is something about the cultural dimension of social problems that eludes us. When confronted with the rowdy youth in the bar, we are happy to raise his drinking age, to tax his beer, to punish him if he drives under the influence, and to push him into treatment if his habit becomes an addiction. But we are reluctant to provide him with a positive and constructive example of how to drink. The consequences of that failure are considerable, because in the end, culture is a more powerful tool in dealing with drinking than medicine, economics, or the law.”
So, the alcoholic consumption figures quoted above don’t really tell us much about a society. It is quite possible to have lower consumption but worse social effects. Let us close with a quote from two anthropologists: Craig McAndrew and Robert B. Edgerton from their book Drunken Comportment.
“Persons learn about drunkenness what their societies import to them, and comporting themselves in consonance with these understandings, they become living confirmations of their society’s teachings....Since societies, like individuals, get the sorts of drunken comportment that they allow, they deserve what they get.”


  1. CHEERS. And yet may you never taste the hair of the dog.

  2. We have all been there. You don't know what "too much" is until you have experienced "too much."

  3. The data of the World Health Organization (WHO) can not be wrong anyhow. Actually, people do not know how long does alcohol stay in your blood and how it is destroying you? That's why addicts are not getting rid of it.


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