Spirits industry questions death toll in French alcohol study

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The French have long had a reputation for drinking in moderation. However, a new report states that the reputation is misleading and attributes 49,000 premature deaths per year – or 134 every day – to alcohol-related diseases.

The report, published on Monday (4 March) in the European Journal of Public Health, is based on data from 2009.

Some 36,500 French men die each year from alcohol-related illnesses, making for around 13% of the overall male mortality rate, the report found.

The findings came as a surprise to the industry.

Carole Brigaudeau, director of communications at SpiritsEurope, which represents producers of spirits drinks at the EU level, questioned the quality of the study and the estimates for the alcohol-attributable mortality in France. These had to be assessed thoroughly before drawing any conclusions, she said.

SpiritsEurope was surprised by the huge difference in estimate between the study (49,000 deaths) and the 28,000 deaths from previous papers.

"We need more time to study this single article and compare it with the finding of various meta-analysis of more than 30 individual articles," Brigaudeau told EURACTIV.

"We are also surprised by the conclusion that alcohol consumption is detrimental even at very low dose. This appears to be in contradiction with the currently available evidence-base."

The French 'simply drinking too much'

The new study, carried out by the Service for Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Paris-based Institue Gustave Roussy, also found that three times as many French men died as a result of an alcohol-related health problem than women.

This is in contrast with the number of female alcohol-related deaths which stand at 12,500, or 5% of female deaths in France.

The survey also revealed was that 40% of those deaths were people under the age of 65.

One of the authors of the new report, Catherine Hill, summed up the findings simply by saying "the French drink too much."

She told the news agency AFP that alcohol is an important cause of premature mortality as it is responsible for 22% of deaths between 15 and 34 years of age, 18% of deaths between 35 and 64 and 7% of deaths of over-65s.

"The causes of death attributable to alcohol are above all cancers (15,000) and cardio-vascular diseases [12,000]," Hill explained.

The remaining deaths included digestive illnesses such as cirrhosis, accidents, suicides and mental illnesses.  

Decreased consumption

Although the statistics may seem worrying, French radio RTL reported that alcohol consumption has decreased in France in the last 50 years.

In 1994, the average Frenchman consumed 3.3 units of alcohol per day, three units in 2002 and 2003 and 2.7 in 2009.

Brigaudeau stated that the vast majority of all cause mortality studies support the view that moderate alcohol consumption (20g of ethanol, or two drinks, for women and 30g for men per day) does not increase mortality risk.

However, when compared to the rest of Europe, it would appear France is still behind. In Switzerland 5% of male deaths were alcohol-related and in Denmark 1%.

Brigaudeau said that per-capita alcohol consumption per se is not the most appropriate harm indicator.

"More important is to consider patterns of consumption  such as chronic, long term, heavy consumption, binge drinking, drink driving, etc, patterns that may lead to acute and chronic alcohol-related diseases," SpiritsEurope's communications director said.

Positions

Simon Spillane, senior advisor at The Brewers of Europe, an organisation which represents brewers in 28 European countries, told EURACTIV:

“As a founding member and leading committer to the EU Alcohol and Health Forum, The Brewers of Europe has demonstrated its commitment, together with national brewers associations and beer companies,  to helping fight alcohol misuse. We are committed to continuing this work through the implementation of the EU Beer Pledge welcomed by the European Commission at its launch in the European Parliament in 2012.

"As the French statistics show, whilst a lot has been done, alcohol misuse remains a problem that needs to be tackled. However, the approach must remain targeted at alcohol misuse and its related harms, identifying the vulnerable groups and targeting them with effective, evidence-based policies. We remain convinced that moderate beer consumption has a positive role to play in society and would strongly ward against any policy approach that crudely aims to reduce consumption of alcohol across the whole population, with ultimately limited impact on the consumption behaviours that are causing the greatest health harms.”

Background

Europeans have the highest per-capita consumption of alcohol and drinking causes nearly one in 10 cases of ill health and premature death.

In 2009, an average adult (aged 15+ years) in the EU consumed 12.5 litres of pure alcohol or nearly three drinks a day. This is more than double the world average.

Harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption is the third largest risk factor for ill health in the EU, responsible for 195,000 deaths each year and accounting for 12% of male and 2% of female premature mortality.

The estimated economic cost to the EU is in the region of €125 billion. Data has indicated that alcohol consumption has remained stable for most member states between 2002 and 2006, with a trend towards higher consumption in 8 countries.

Timeline

  • Spring 2013: European Commission expected to publish a review of its informal alcohol strategy.

Further Reading

European Commission

Organisations

NGOs

  • European school survey project on alcohol and other drugs (ESPAD): Website
  • European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare): Website
  • Active (Sobriety, Friendship and Peace): Website
  • Alcohol Policy Youth Network (APYN): Website
  • European Public Health Alliance (EPHA): Website
  • European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL): Website
  • Youth Forum: Website
  • European Kidney Health Alliance (EKHA): Website

Research