Socioeconomic inequalities in alcohol-related mortality have been documented in several European countries, but it is unknown whether the magnitude of these inequalities differs between countries and whether these inequalities increase or decrease over time.
Methods and Findings
We collected and harmonized data on mortality from four alcohol-related causes (alcoholic psychosis, dependence, and abuse; alcoholic cardiomyopathy; alcoholic liver cirrhosis; and accidental poisoning by alcohol) by age, sex, education level, and occupational class in 20 European populations from 17 different countries, both for a recent period and for previous points in time, using data from mortality registers. Mortality was age-standardized using the European Standard Population, and measures for both relative and absolute inequality between low and high socioeconomic groups (as measured by educational level and occupational class) were calculated.
Rates of alcohol-related mortality are higher in lower educational and occupational groups in all countries. Both relative and absolute inequalities are largest in Eastern Europe, and Finland and Denmark also have very large absolute inequalities in alcohol-related mortality. For example, for educational inequality among Finnish men, the relative index of inequality is 3.6 (95% CI 3.3–4.0) and the slope index of inequality is 112.5 (95% CI 106.2–118.8) deaths per 100,000 person-years. Over time, the relative inequality in alcohol-related mortality has increased in many countries, but the main change is a strong rise of absolute inequality in several countries in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia) and Northern Europe (Finland, Denmark) because of a rapid rise in alcohol-related mortality in lower socioeconomic groups. In some of these countries, alcohol-related causes now account for 10% or more of the socioeconomic inequality in total mortality.
Because our study relies on routinely collected underlying causes of death, it is likely that our results underestimate the true extent of the problem.
Alcohol-related conditions play an important role in generating inequalities in total mortality in many European countries. Countering increases in alcohol-related mortality in lower socioeconomic groups is essential for reducing inequalities in mortality. Studies of why such increases have not occurred in countries like France, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy can help in developing evidence-based policies in other European countries.
In a harmonized analysis of regional data, Johan Mackenbach and colleagues characterize three decades of alcohol-related mortality across socioeconomic groups in Europe.
People have consumed alcoholic beverages throughout history, but, globally, about three million people die from alcohol-related causes every year. Alcohol consumption, particularly in higher amounts, is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (diseases of the heart and/or blood vessels), liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), injuries, and many other fatal and nonfatal health problems. Alcohol also affects the well-being and health of people around those who drink, through alcohol-related crime and road traffic crashes. The impact of alcohol use on health depends on the amount of alcohol consumed and on the pattern of drinking. Most guidelines on alcohol consumption recommend that men should regularly consume no more than two alcoholic drinks per day and that women should regularly consume no more than one drink per day (a “drink” is, roughly speaking, a can of beer or a small glass of wine). The guidelines also advise people to avoid binge drinking—the consumption of five or more drinks on a single occasion for men or four or more drinks on a single occasion for women.
Why Was This Study Done?
Like many other behaviors that affect health, alcohol consumption is affected by socioeconomic status (an individual’s economic and social position in relation to others based on income, level of education, and occupation). Thus, in many European countries, the frequency of drinking and the levels of alcohol consumption are greater in higher socioeconomic groups than in lower socioeconomic groups, whereas binge drinking and other problematic forms of alcohol consumption occur more frequently in lower socioeconomic groups. Importantly, higher levels of mortality (death) from alcohol-related conditions have been documented in lower socioeconomic groups than in higher socioeconomic groups in several European countries. Here, the researchers analyze mortality registers to find out whether the magnitude of socioeconomic inequalities in alcohol-related mortality differs among European countries and whether these inequalities have changed over time. Documenting these differences and changes is important because it may help to explain socioeconomic inequalities in alcohol-related mortality and thus inform policies and interventions designed to reduce alcohol-related harm and socioeconomic inequalities in mortality.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers obtained data on deaths from alcoholic psychosis, dependence, and abuse; alcoholic cardiomyopathy (a type of heart disease); alcoholic liver cirrhosis; and accidental alcohol poisoning from the mortality registers of 17 European countries. Using available data on educational level and occupational class, they calculated relative and absolute socioeconomic inequalities in alcohol-related mortality (relative inequality reflects mortality differences between socioeconomic groups in terms of a proportion or percentage; absolute inequality reflects mortality differences between groups in terms of deaths per 100,000 person-years). Rates of alcohol-related mortality were higher in individuals with less education or with manual (as opposed to non-manual) occupations in all 17 countries. Both relative and absolute inequalities were largest in Eastern Europe but Finland and Denmark also had very large absolute inequalities in alcohol-related mortality. For example, among Finnish men, those with the lowest level of education were 3.6 times more likely to die from an alcohol-related cause than those with the highest level of education, and there were 112.5 more deaths per 100,000 person-years among those with the lowest level of education than among those with the highest level of education. The relative inequality in alcohol-related mortality increased over time in many countries. Moreover, the absolute inequality increased markedly in Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, and Denmark because of a rapid rise in alcohol-related mortality in lower socioeconomic groups. By contrast, mortality from alcohol-related causes among lower educated men was stable in France, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that alcohol-related conditions are an important contributing factor to the socioeconomic inequality in total mortality in many European countries. Indeed, in some countries (for example, Finland), alcohol-related causes account for 10% or more of the socioeconomic inequality in total mortality among men. The accuracy of these findings is likely to be affected by the use of routinely collected underlying causes of death and by other aspects of the study design. Importantly, however, these findings indicate that to reduce socioeconomic inequalities in mortality, health professionals and governments need to introduce interventions and policies designed to counter recent increases in alcohol-related mortality in lower socioeconomic groups. Further investigation of why such increases have not occurred in some countries may help in the design of these important public health initiatives.
This list of resources contains links that can be accessed when viewing the PDF on a device or via the online version of the article at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001909.
The World Health Organization provides detailed information about alcohol, including a fact sheet on the harmful use of alcohol; its Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014 provides country profiles for alcohol consumption, information on the impact of alcohol use on health, and policy responses; the Global Information System on Alcohol and Health provides further information about alcohol, including information on control policies around the world
The US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has information about alcohol and its effects on health; it provides interactive worksheets to help people evaluate their drinking and decide whether and how to make a change
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on alcohol and public health
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides detailed information about drinking and alcohol, including information on the risks of drinking too much, tools for calculating alcohol consumption, and personal stories about alcohol use problems
MedlinePlus provides links to many other resources on alcohol