The world is every bit as diverse as it is wide; one can find different people and customs around every corner. Spend enough time learning about different cultures, however, and you’ll find that despite our differences, some habits are universal, such as rituals of family meals and indulgence in vices such as tobacco and alcohol. Yet while these phenomena are global, their rates of consumption – and their impact on personal and public health – can vary widely.
To learn more about global consumption, we took a look at worldwide and national usage of alcohol and tobacco as well as average national caloric intake among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. We’ve analyzed current and historical rates of consumption since 1960 to see the trends that have emerged over the decades. Read on, and see how alcohol, tobacco, and food intake have been changing around the world.
Average Alcohol Consumption per Capita (2004–2013)
Humans have been producing alcohol in one form or another for a remarkably long time. Records as far back as seventh millennium B.C. (that’s 9,000 years ago) indicate that civilizations in ancient China were crafting a potent beverage made from rice, honey, and fruit. We know that alcohol quickly became a prominent feature in nations around the world as people began turning all kinds of fruits, grains, and other fermentable sugars into a strong drink. Cultures ever since have produced alcohol, with some consuming more than others.
Russia, a country in which a love for vodka runs deep, has a strong historical tie to the beverage. In the 1500s, the Russian government produced, distributed, and encouraged the wanton consumption of vodka in order to reap the massive tax revenue it generated. That culture of excess has remained ever since, with a per capita consumption rate of 11.58 liters of pure alcohol per year. As most vodkas are 80 proof, or 40% alcohol by volume, this would equate to 29.63 liters of vodka per year – about 81 milliliters per day on average, or nearly two shots.
The reach of Soviet alcoholism isn’t limited to just Russia. The formerly Soviet-occupied nations of Lithuania, with 13.05 liters of pure alcohol consumed per year, and Estonia, with 12.62 liters, are among the locations for the highest per capita consumption in the world. Once these nations achieved independence in the ’90s, officials dissolved the Soviet control over alcohol production and sale, opening the door to decades of booming growth in the industry. Both counties have had alarmingly liberal regulations toward alcohol since, and attempts to implement policies to reduce alcohol consumption have met with great resistance.
Plenty of other European countries, like Austria, France, and Germany, fall on the upper side of the world average. Again, a strong drinking culture is often a result of alcohol being a major part of trade and a significant source of tax revenue. Despite increased awareness of the impacts of alcoholism, these countries struggle to reverse these long-lived habits.
Alcohol Consumption Over Time (1961–2013)
Alcohol consumption trends over time are mixed. Europe and the United States have reduced alcohol consumption considerably since their peaks in the 1970s and 1980s, while the rates in other nations have risen.
While excessive alcohol consumption can have a damaging impact on health, another important part of a healthy lifestyle is maintaining a healthy weight. Yet countries all over the world continue to produce and serve more calories than the average person requires to meet their nutritional needs. Technology has made producing and consuming food cheaper, putting industrialized nations at risk of obesity problems. While some counties have too much food, others do not have enough. Mapping out the number of calories served per capita provides a clear view of which countries fall into certain categories.
Calories Served per Capita (2004–2011)
For example, the United States serves enough calories per capita to put it near the top of the list globally. Obesity rates are incredibly high as well, with 33.3% of men and 35.8% of women in the United States considered obese. Yet looking at other countries with very high caloric serving rates yields different results. Belgium, a country serving just as many calories per capita as the United States, has a remarkably low 10% obesity rate. Conversely, people in Mexico and Chile have access to fewer calories than many countries but have obesity rates near the top of the list. Furthermore:
Calories Served Over Time (1961–2011)
Regardless of where you look, the number of calories available for consumption is growing. Since 1961, the number of calories served per day has risen, peaking between 500 and 600 calories higher for many places. Part of the reason for such dramatic increases? Restaurant servings are growing, and more people are eating out. Data compiled from independent and small-chain restaurants show the average serving size per meal at 66% of an adult’s daily recommended caloric intake. Food is in such abundance in the United States that one out of every four food calories meant for human consumption goes to waste.
As a result, industrialized countries have become increasingly vulnerable to what are now known as lifestyle diseases: conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, which are associated with habits such as unhealthy eating, smoking, and consumption of alcohol. The World Health Organization has estimated that 16 million preventable early deaths occurred in 2014 due to such conditions, and notes that this number can be reduced by policies discouraging the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and unhealthy foods. While higher-income nations have begun to implement such policies, many lower-income and middle-income nations still face these health hazards without the necessary public health policies to mitigate them – and as a result, these nations bear the majority of preventable premature deaths from these diseases.
One exception to the trend of growing caloric availability is Eastern Europe. Much of this area was part of the Soviet Union, which was once a nation of significant economic power. This led to much of the area prospering, resulting in more than enough food for its citizens. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 took with it the government programs that provided jobs and economic stability to the region. Many of the countries that formerly made up the Soviet Union struggled to adapt and recover, which resulted in a sharp drop in the number of calories available to nationals during that time.
Tobacco Consumption per Capita (2004–2013)
Smoking is still very common in certain places in the world. In Greece, 40% of people over the age of 15 are smokers. Belgium isn’t too far behind either, consuming a tremendous amount of tobacco per capita annually. Part of this has to do with the public’s perception of smoking in these places. In Greece, for example, efforts to ban smoking in public are relatively recent and not well-enforced. Efforts to curb smoking through taxation have largely failed as well; Greece, for one, has a large black market for cheaper cigarettes.
Tobacco Consumption Over Time (1960–2014)
The United States has seen a steady drop in cigarette consumption over time, an important change given the importance of tobacco as a cash crop in the colonial days. Despite the reduction, the US still manages to make the top five in terms of tobacco consumption. For the most part, states have been free to regulate tobacco usage as they see fit. As a result, policies on smoking in public and the price of a pack of cigarettes varies widely from one state to another. Regardless of particular state laws, it is increasingly more common for restaurants, offices, bars, and other businesses to proactively ban smoking on premises.
After reviewing the data, it’s obvious that with rising economic strength comes an increased consumption of non-essential items, such as alcohol, tobacco, and thousands of unneeded calories every day. Excess resources, combined with historical tendencies, can do a great job of explaining the habits and health outcomes of a particular country. The data also suggest that there is some sort of equilibrium to the amount of consumption toward which countries are headed over time. This may be a response to the declining benefits of being on either the extreme upper or lower end of consumption. The three components measured may be enjoyable up to a point but start to have negative health impacts beyond a certain limit.
The excess consumption of tobacco, alcohol and food can lead to a variety of health complications. Heart and liver disease, cancer and obesity are just a few of the possible long-term consequences of lifestyles that include smoking, drinking and unhealthy eating. Based on national trends in usage patterns and other variables, all countries experience the impact of lifestyle diseases differently; however, the quest for improved health is a global one. Part of our mission at Recovery Brands is to help those affected by various addictions – which can include the problematic use of substances like alcohol as well as compulsively disordered eating behaviors such as binge eating, bulimia and anorexia. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or other substance abuse, or feeling the negative impacts of a behavioral addiction or eating disorder, recovery centers throughout the country can provide the help that you need. To assist those in need with locating such treatment help, Recovery Brands operates the Rehabs.com treatment network. Additionally, we invite you to peruse our site to learn more about our mission.
We broke down alcohol consumption, tobacco consumption, and calories served by region and over time using OECD’s Health Statistics, Non-Medical Determinants of Health. In some cases, data was not available for each year reviewed in this study so averages were calculated to compile the final data points seen in the graph’s.
A cigarette is one gram of tobacco but can vary by type of cigarette. A cigar weighs roughly two grams. Measurements are by grams per capita per year.
Alcohol is measured liters per capita per year ages 15 and over.
Calories are measured per capita per day.
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