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Research into the effect of alcohol on cardiovascular disease has indicated protective effects from moderate consumption. These observations, made in industrialized countries, have influenced policies on alcohol in countries where the situation may be quite different--specifically, where consumption is substantially higher or patterns of drinking are different. In central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, a growing body of epidemiological research indicates a positive rather than negative association between alcohol consumption and cardiovascular deaths, especially sudden cardiac deaths. By means of a systematic review of published work, we examine whether there is a physiological basis for the observed association between alcohol and heart disease seen in eastern Europe, focusing on the effects of high levels of consumption and of irregular or binge drinking. In binge drinkers, cardioprotective changes in high-density lipoproteins are not seen, and adverse changes in low-density lipoproteins are acquired. Irregular drinking is associated with an increased risk of thrombosis, occurring after cessation of drinking. It predisposes both to histological changes in the myocardium and conducting system and to a reduction in the threshold for ventricular fibrillation. Measures of frequency as well as quantity of consumption should be included in epidemiological studies. Taken with the epidemiological evidence emerging from eastern Europe, these observations have important implications for estimates of the burden of disease attributable to alcohol.