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Fact/Fiction: Do people really drink more in colder countries?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we delve into the facts behind the claim that people who live in cold countries drink more alcohol than those in warmer climates

How it was told

Last week headlines triumphantly heralded that what we all suspected is definitely true: people who live in cold countries drink more booze than folk in sunkissed climes.

“Cold weather and lack of sun is reason why Scots love a drink” proclaimed The Daily Record, while The Times opted for “Cold climate turns people to the bottle.” The Independent led with the line: “People living in colder regions with less sunlight are more likely to be heavy drinkers, according to a new study.”

The BBC’s headline stated: “Living in a cold, dark climate more likely to lead to heavy drinking”, but its story was a little more cautious in its phrasing, saying: “People who live in cold climates with less sunlight could be more likely to drink heavily” and pointed to “a possible link between average temperatures, hours of sunlight and alcohol consumption”.

Because the media loves popular science jargon, much coverage quoted the experts’ line that alcohol is a ‘vasodilator’, meaning it increases flow of blood to the skin, making the person feel warmer. So a wee dram to take the chill off a winter’s night has some basis in fact. However, blood rushing to the skin means your heart has to pump harder to push it around your organs, creating other health risks. So are those who live in the chilly north really prey to their climate?

Facts. Checked.

The report which led to the headlines came from The Pittsburgh Liver Research Center and was published in the journal Hepatology.

The study aggregated data from 193 countries, looked at the average temperature, number of daylight hours and annual per capita litres of alcohol consumption alongside statistics on cirrhosis of the liver broken down by nation.

Lead author Dr Ramon Bataller acknowledged that climate variables were not the only parameters impacting alcohol consumption at nation level, with other factors such as religious, economic, educational or cultural influences having a major impact in some countries. And he recommended that further studies should investigate sociocultural parameters such as these.

The report also stated that individual alcohol consumption was influenced by “a vast range of phenomena, from genetic conditionings to historical and geographical characteristics,” and noted that depression and change of seasons can be linked, which the report cited as exacerbating the risk of alcohol abuse.

However, the report’s results did “suggest a potential causal effect of climate parameters on health indicators [including cirrhosis]” and concluded: “Colder weather and fewer sunshine hours are possible causal agents for higher alcohol consumption worldwide.” Note the word possible.

In August The Lancet listed countries with a high prevalence of alcohol drinkers, which appears to back up Dr Bataller’s claim. Among men, Denmark and Norway had the highest regular drinkers (97.1 and 94.3 per cent). Among women 95.3 per cent of Danes and 91.4 per cent of Norwegians were drinkers.

However, sunny Portugal was second-top (behind Romania) in a measure of daily drinking levels, contradicting a simple analogy between cold weather and quantity of alcohol consumed.

Last year Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce minimum alcohol pricing, in a bid to reduce Scots’ consumption of booze. At a World Health Organisation conference in Edinburgh, WHO adviser Professor Jurgen Rehm said minimum pricing should be extended to all European countries, recommending adults drink no more than one unit of alcohol a day.

It’s an issue that remains more complex than the headlines suggest.

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Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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Illustration: Miles Cole

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