Rates of Alcohol Abuse in America vs. Europe

Here in the United States, we have an interesting relationship with alcohol. As you might remember from history class back in school, the prohibition era outlawed alcohol consumption and sale entirely from 1920 until 1933, and the current legal drinking age is 21.

Most of our friends across the Atlantic Ocean over in Europe have a much more relaxed attitude toward the consumption of alcohol. In many countries, the legal drinking age is just 18, and minors are allowed in bars as long as they aren’t drinking.

Recently, we compared drug laws in other countries around the world to those here in America. We found that some of the countries that had the loosest laws around drugs also had the lowest rates of abuse, particularly in Portugal, where drug addictions and abuse are looked at as a public health problem rather than a legal one.

It got us wondering whether the less strict mentality around alcohol has a similar effect – do European countries have significantly lower rates of alcohol abuse?

United States

Again, we’ll start off with the US as a comparison point. Our drinking age is 21, though many people begin drinking in high school or middle school. Young people in particular are known for binge drinking at parties and social gatherings.

Around 5.8% of adults over the age of 18 had an alcohol use disorder in 2018. However, that same year, 26.45% of adults reported binge drinking (consuming 4 or more drinks within two hours) in the past month while 6.6% reported drinking heavily (drinking on 5 or more days in the past month).


Italy is famous around the world for its wine. The legal drinking age here is just 16 years old, however laws about underage drinking are rarely enforced. When Italians drink, the primary objective is spending time with friends and having fun, rather than getting drunk. That being said, young people all around the world like to drink and party.

The number of alcohol consumers in Italy decreased by over 8% in the 10-year period between 2006 and 2016. Italy gathers alcohol abuse statistics a bit differently than the US, but they report 15.9% of the population engages in risky behaviors around alcohol, including binge-drinking, and consumption by young teens.


In Spain, the drinking age is also lower than in the US at 18 years old. Beer is the Spaniards’ drink of choice, but drinking most often happens at mealtimes. They can also be “marathon drinkers”, though, and young people abuse alcohol to have a good time, often partying all night.

In general, Spanish people seem to drink fairly infrequently, with most reporting to only drink a few times a month. As far as abuse rates go, alcohol dependence is prevalent in less than 1.5% of the population.

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