Europeans are Drinking Themselves to Death

Europe is failing to deal with the life-threatening effects of excessive and regular alcohol consumption on its citizens’ health. Severe diseases, such as liver cirrhosis, are growing at an alarming rate and are affecting people at a younger age than in the past.[1] Since a number of current policies have not been successful in addressing health issues linked with alcohol across Europe,[2] liver experts discussed a range of practical solutions to combat alcohol-related illness and death during a monothematic conference hosted by the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) today.

Liver disease is the main health burden attributable to alcohol and Europe has the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the world (11 litres of pure alcohol per adult per year).[3] One in fifteen adults suffers from serious health conditions because of alcohol consumption – making it the third largest cause of early death and illness after tobacco and high blood pressure.[1,4] One in seven European adults (aged 15 or over) consume more than 35cl of alcohol/week (men) or 18cl of alcohol/week (women) on average and over one in five report a heavy drinking episode (44cl of alcohol/week) at least once a week.[4]

One of the key issues addressed at the conference was the increasing number of liver deaths resulting from daily or near-daily heavy drinking in the adult population, in addition to binge drinking in young people. Daily drinking carries more than twice the risk of liver damage compared with intermittent drinking once or twice per week.[5] The risk of liver disease becomes significant at approximately 20cl of alcohol/week (less than two standard bottles of wine), and increases dramatically over 40cl of alcohol/week.[6]

At the conference, liver experts proposed the reassessment of the concept of alcohol units across Europe by only referring to centilitres of pure alcohol and standardised screening of all patients’ alcohol consumption, particularly amongst obese patients who are at greater risk.

It is not just a health challenge either. The strong hold of the drinks industry in challenging recommendations from health experts in relation to the promotion of alcohol to the general public has been a significant barrier to change.

Professor Mark Thursz, EASL Vice-Secretary, said: “Clear messages around healthy drinking need to be developed and communicated to the public. The concept of responsible drinking can be dangerous if it refers only to the detrimental psychosocial effects (addiction, drink driving, disorderly behaviour), as drinking to levels that address these issues is still detrimental to the liver and people’s health. This is why so many policies have not been overall successful in addressing alcohol’s impact on citizen’s health so far.”

“As one of Europe’s key health determinants, alcohol is under-addressed – particularly compared to smoking and obesity. There is a pressing need for the European Institutions to support more comprehensive epidemiological research that will help establish alcohol’s true burden on health. Clear economic and legal sanctions – already the case with obesity – with food labelling, and smoking – advertising & public space bans – are also required.”