The Drunkenness of Nations

"Is your Englishman so expert in his drinking?" asks Cassio in Othello. "Why he drinks you with facility your Dane dead, he gives your Hollander a vomit ere the next pottle can be filled," Iago replies. Many countries--like many barflies--take perverse pride in their thirsts. Now, thanks to the the World Health Organization's recent Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, we can actually find out which countries put away the most booze. The map below shows it graphically; it generated a lot of attention when it was picked up by the Huffington Post.

The full report contains some real surprises. For one thing, Americans are relatively abstemious--the U.S. is only the 56th most bibulous nation on earth, consuming 9.4 liters of alcohol per person per year, mostly in the form of beer (4.47 liters), plus 1.36 liters of wine and 2.65 liters of spirits. Canada is 48th, with an average intake of 9.77 liters (4.10 in the form of beer, 1.5 in wine, and 2.10 in spirits).  Moldova, if you're interested, is number one (18.22 liters!), followed by the Czech Republic (16.45) and Hungary (16.27). Fans of the Bard will be pleased to know that the 17th ranked English are still more potent potters than either the Danes (who are ranked 18th) or the Dutch (20th).

One surprise is that more people abstain than you might expect--almost half of all men and two thirds of women worldwide report that they have not had a drink in the past year. Many of those abstainers, of course, are Islamic.

My team and I decided to take a fun look at these data and use them to examine what factors might be associated with a nation's propensity to drink. Is drinking more prevalent in poorer or richer countries? Those whose citizens are more or less educated?  How might a nation's drinking habits be related to its economic structure?  Is drinking more widespread in countries with hard-scrabble blue-collar economies or in those where white-collar knowledge-work is more prevalent?  What about a nation's happiness: Are people more likely to drink in nation's where the happiness climate is "down" or might it be that tipsier countries are happier than teetotalers? With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander we ran a basic correlation analysis between these and other factors. Our analysis only points to associations between variables; we do not make any claims about causation and note that other factors that we have not looked at might come into play. Still, a number of interesting and in some cases perhaps counterintuitive findings cropped up.

Drinking levels are lower where the prospects for workers are better, or are at least perceived as such. The correlation between alcohol consumption and "good labor market conditions" (the variable is from Gallup surveys) is -.46. At the same time (a bit paradoxically), drinking is more prevalent in richer than in poorer countries. The correlation between alcohol consumption and economic output is .39.

Drinking is more prevalent in nations with highly educated populations.  The correlation between alcohol consumption and human capital was .61, the highest of any in our analysis.

Drinking is more prevalent in white-collar, knowledge-based economies. The correlation between alcohol consumption and the creative class (the share of workers in professional, technical, artistic, creative, health and education jobs) is .45.

Despite the stereotype of blue-collar workers as heavy drinkers (and statistics that back up the idea that they drink more when they are worried about jobs), our analysis did not show a significant correlation between alcohol consumption and the percent of a workforce in blue collar occupations.

Perhaps the most surprising finding in our analysis is that happier nations quaff more than unhappy ones. Alcohol consumption was systematically higher in happier nations, with a correlation of .31.

What does all this mean? Over-indulgence in alcohol--especially of home-made alcohol--remains a dire health risk. Especially in poorer, less-developed countries, alcohol abuse goes hand in hand with high levels of crime, disease, and early death. But many of the world's least sober places are also among its richest, most well-educated, happiest and healthiest. "Western European countries have some of the highest consumption rates but their net alcohol-attributable mortality rates are relatively low," the report reveals.

And this shapes something of a paradox.  When people in poor nations drink, it tends to compound their economic woes and health problems. But for nations whose people can afford it, alcohol (when used in moderation) is more of an indulgence than a vice.