As Italians drink less, Finns drink more, due to liberalized EU-based policies.  But the latter have not yet adopted Mediterranean drinking customs, leading to a more problematic drinking culture and greater alcohol problems.  We have to come up with a better approach than more restrictive alcohol policies.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, October 25, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

The New World of Alcohol

The most amazing thing in the recent history of alcohol is. . . .Finns now drink more than Italians.

This is amazing because from time immemorial Italians integrated wine with meals throughout the day, while Finns drank in explosive outbursts of intoxication. Although the latter style leads to many more problems, the former creates far higher consumption levels. Why the two cultures drank in these disparate ways is a matter of much conjecture, including that being in the warm sun more made Italians happier. It certainly allows them to grow more grapes, while the Finns consumed distilled spirits.

Thus, the first standardized cross-national study of drinking found an inverse relationship between national alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems - that is, the more alcohol consumed in a country, the fewer drinking problems it had.

That was true up to a point. Within a given country, greater consumption can cause greater problems.

Which brings us back to Finland. Europe, she is a-changing; the Times, they are a-changing.

Because of the EU, tariffs on alcohol had to be standardized across the continent, leading to a reduction in taxes on, and the cost of, alcohol in Finland. (Incidentally, for conspiracy theorists inclined to posit that alcohol companies must be behind the leap in Finnish drinking - Finland has a state-owned and operated alcohol monopoly.) At the same time, restrictions were removed on how much alcohol a Finn could bring back to the country when returning from the Continent.

The results of these liberalized alcohol policies do not appear good so far - the Finns have been drinking more, and suffering more consequences as a result.

Meanwhile, Italians have moved over the past decades predominantly into cities. And, even drinking at lunch and dinner, if you're working all day in an office and driving around town, you'll have less chance to consume alcohol than back at the farmhouse.

Many of the same conditions faced by the Finns prevail in Sweden. But in Sweden, the same outburst of consumption and problems has not resulted. Why this difference is so will occupy social scientists for many years to come. I have heard one Swedish epidemiologist attribute relatively successful alcohol control in his country to superior grass roots community prevention efforts.

Could be. But the same scientist also suggests that it is because Swedish youths, whose drinking has not spiked as people had feared, are more occupied today playing video games. THAT, I don't buy.

Here are my interpretations:

Whereas Scandinavia has previously been a world unto itself, it is now integrating with Europe.

Southern Sweden (including Stockholm) is the most obvious example. It now looks like much of the rest of Europe in terms of youth culture, casual (instead of all-out) drinking (well-lit, sociable pubs proliferate), and a sense of being part of a world culture. That Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy novels have become best sellers worldwide, and are spawning an American series of films, is one sign of this.

This is less true of Finland, where drinking maintains much of its traditional hue - that is, young people learn to drink outside of the home with peers, which comprises an introduction into a lifetime association of drinking with bingeing.

And the lesson? - in an evermore unified world culture, one moreover where people demand greater freedoms, it will be harder to impose restrictions on substance use of all kinds. So we better come up with superior ways to inculcate people against addiction than admonitions, negative information campaigns, and restrictive laws.

Caption on photo: "Drunken Finns making asses of themselves."

References:

Beccaria, F. Alcol e Generazioni. Rome: Carocci; 2010. (This is a comparison of Finnish and Italian drinking, beginning with youths' introduction to alcohol: English-language CD available)

Hibell, B. et al. The 2007 ESPAD Report : Substance use among students in 35 European countries. Stockholm: The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs; 2009

Norström T. editor. Alcohol in Postwar Europe: Consumption, drinking patterns, consequences and policy responses in 15 European countries. Stockholm: National Institute of Public Health; 2002.

Peele, S. Alcohol as evil - Temperance and policy. Addiction Research and Theory, August 2010; 18(4): 374-382.