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The ubiquitous tapas bar, in San Sebastian. In the Spanish culture, tapas and alcohol are inseparable

by Jessie Chiang

Evidence suggests that drinking culture plays a big role in whether or not a country consumes unhealthy amounts of alcohol.

At a time when alcohol consumption is on the rise around the world and its risks are becoming clearer and clearer, understanding how to decrease alcohol abuse is an important issue.

Estrella Damm, one of Spain’s popular beer brands

It is well known that people in Spain embibe a lot of alcohol. In fact, according to the country’s National Drug Plan, their alcohol use is twice as much as the global average, at 11.2 litres a person a year. This isn’t surprising when every eatery offers alcohol, including fast food restaurants such as McDonalds. Alcohol is also extraordinarily cheap, €2 for a pint of beer on average.

Compared to a country like New Zealand (where I come from), which only has a total of 9.2 litres per person p.a., and alcohol is much harder to access, it would be easy to assume that Spaniards would have more alcohol-related problems.

Cross & Crash Memorial in New Zealand

Cross & Crash Memorial in Canterbury, New Zealand for a fatal victim of a road accident on the way home from a party involving alcohol

However recent data released by the World Health Organisation revealed that 31% traffic accident deaths in New Zealand involved alcohol whereas in Spain that number was significantly lower at 7-17%. Moreover, WHO’s Global Status Report on alcohol and health in 2014 also showed that there were nearly twice as many Kiwis who suffered alcohol disorders as Spaniards.

Laws regarding alcohol consumption are similar and both countries have a legal drinking age of 18 (except for the province of Asturias in Spain where it is 16 years old). If anything, New Zealand has stricter laws regarding drinking while driving. For example, it is illegal for novice drivers to drink any amount of alcohol, compared to an allowance of 0.03g/dl in Spain.

Why is it then that New Zealand seems to have more problems with alcohol?

Greymouth has a rich history based largely on mining in the region (as does much of the West Coast) and is home to some interesting attractions including the Monteiths Brewery, pictured below, where you can enjoy some of New Zealand’s best beer and excellent food in a friendly environment.

Monteiths Brewery (pictured) in Greymouth, on the West Coast of South Island, brews some of New Zealand’s best beer.

A report by The Social Issues Research Centre reveals that countries such as the UK and Australia (which have a similar drinking culture to New Zealand) tend to associate alcohol with violent behaviour. The report also notes that said countries think of alcohol as marking the transition from work to play and a symbol of recreation and irresponsibility.

Sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand's famous wine region

The world-renowned sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand’s largest wine-growing region

These cultures tend to have higher levels of alcohol-related problems.

In contrast, alcohol is perceived as largely a peaceful and harmonious drink in Mediterranean countries, Spain among them. It isn’t a drink marking the transition from work to play. Rather, it is part of the normal working day.

The study finds that these countries tend to have lower levels of alcohol-related problems.

One can only conclude that more laws and harder access may not be the best way to decrease unhealthy consumption. It will require a change in the way alcohol is perceived, which perception results from drinking culture. Drinking itself is not bad; it’s the way you look at drinking and, presumably, how much you drink that can harm you. But then, again, Spain drinks more than New Zealand and yet the latter suffers more from fatal alcohol-related road accidents.


> Featured image by (, CC BY No Derivs 2.0 Generic
> Estrella Damm beer by Paul Hermans via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA3.0
> Cross & Crash memorial by Jorge Royan  via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 3.0
> Monteiths Brewery by Edwin 11 (, CC Attribution
> Sauvignon blanc by Agne 27 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 3.0