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Why Don't Irish and Italian People Drink the Same?

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I often speak in Europe, particularly in Ireland and Italy. Since my topic is alcohol, drugs and addiction, I am extremely tuned into cultural differences along those lines.

So I can't help but notice that, late at night in Dublin, young men roam the city urinating in the streets. I have never seen anything like this in Rome. In Italy, people typically drink wine with meals at home and in restaurants. In Ireland, people rarely drink with meals at home. The standard locale for Irish drinking is the pub, where people consume beer and whiskey late into the night. Although pubs are often fun, they can get quite raucous.

The drinking age in Ireland is 18. In Italy, it is 16. Both of these figures seem alarming to many Americans. Some in Ireland share this feeling, and there is considerable pressure to raise the drinking age there to 21 (which would make it the only country in Europe to match the Americans in this regard). Despite the younger drinking age in Italy, there is virtually no sentiment within the country to raise the drinking age even as high as the current Irish age limit.

One reason Ireland may be experiencing more pressure in this area is the existing level of drunkenness among young people there. The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) reports that, among Irish 15-to 16-year-olds, 47 percent have been drunk in the past year, 26 percent in the past month.

The comparable ESPAD figures for drunkenness among Italians teens are 27 percent (versus 47 percent) and 12 percent (versus 26 percent).

Why are young Italians so much less prone to get drunk? Recently, my friend and colleague Dr. Franca Beccaria published "Alcol e Generazioni" (Alcohol and Generations), comparing the introduction to drinking of young people in Italy versus northern cultures.

Youngsters in Italy have difficulty remembering when exactly they first tasted alcohol -- but generally they recall it was between ages seven and eight, when their families allowed them a small amount of wine mixed with water. The northern Europeans to whom Italian youth were compared in this study were Finns. Like the Irish, Finnish children are not introduced to alcohol at home. The Finns typically drank for the first time at age 15-16. They did so with peers, and usually became intoxicated.

Older Italians and Finns remember this initiation into drinking as adults. In fact, they often recreate it. For example, the European Comparative Alcohol Study (ECAS) found among Finnish men that 29 percent of drinking occasions involve binge drinking. This figure is 13 percent for Italian men.

Comparing Italian and Irish men's drinking, ECAS found a most startling discontinuity. That is, only 2 percent of Irish men drink daily -- compared with 42 percent of Italian men who do. But 48 percent of the Irish men report binge drinking at least one a week. And the Italian men? Eleven percent binge on a weekly basis.

So, just as the Irish worry more about youthful drinking and in fact have more drunken young people, they are more concerned about the impact of alcohol overall on their country and yet -- or should that be because -- have more binge-drinking adults. So regular drinking seems to counteract binge drinking!

Alcohol is such a funny drug; it begets such different images in different places -- and the images translate into reality.