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Report offers sobering view of drinking habits in the EU

COPENHAGEN -- Inside the leafy Tivoli Gardens one evening, a small orchestra had just finished playing a medley of songs from ``The King and I" -- just like in a postcard. But outside its gates, a posse of teenage soccer fans on halftime break from watching the Sweden-England World Cup match were less than picture perfect: chanting, waving beer bottles, occasionally hurling an empty Tuborg to the ground.

The names of the many bars near the venerable Tivoli -- Dubliners, Irish Rover, O'Leary's, Rosie McGee's -- would imply that drunken, loutish behavior was not native to Denmark.

But a report commissioned by the European Union, released in June, concludes that however much the continent associates alcohol with Ireland, much of the EU has a serious drinking problem -- with Denmark being something of a standout. The report urged the European Commission and member states to do more to regulate drinking, from advertising restrictions to warning labels and higher alcohol taxes. The commission will review the topic this autumn.

The EU is ``the part of the world with the highest proportion of drinkers and the highest level of alcohol consumption," the report begins. It concludes: ``Governments have a responsibility to intervene in the market."

Denmark, home of Hans Christian Andersen and the Little Mermaid, tops the list for problem drinking in many categories, especially for youth. Among 15-year-old boys and girls here, European surveys show, nearly 70 percent have been drunk at least twice in the past year; 89 percent of 16-year-olds had been inebriated.

Throughout Europe, World Cup month has inevitably aggravated the problem, with calls to ambulance services and the police skyrocketing after each match. As the Budweiser advertisement above the door to Rosie McGee's proclaims: ``You do the football, we do the beer."

But European governments have been reluctant to regulate drinking, specialists have said, because alcohol is a huge industry in the EU, which produces more than a quarter of the world's alcohol and more than half of its wine.

``There is good evidence of how to solve this problem and what policy measures reduce it," said Peter Anderson, a public health consultant who was the lead author of the recent 400-page report.

``You need limits on marketing, you need to raise taxes, and you need to enforce purchase ages."

Indeed, Denmark's drinking rates stem in part from a minimum purchasing age of 16 (up from 15 a few years back), low beer and liquor taxes (beer costs 67 cents a bottle), and few restrictions on advertising, specialists said.

``We are the country of Tuborg and Carlsberg, and images of these products are everywhere," said Dr. Pernille Due, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, who noted that Denmark's so-called green summer concerts are named not for the season but for the color of the sponsor's beer bottles.

``I went to see `Harry Potter' -- the audience was mostly children -- and there was advertising for Smirnoff and Tuborg," she said. ``Denmark stands out when it comes to problem drinking, but there is not a strong will on the part of government to handle this problem."

As new regulations throughout the EU are considered, the alcohol industry has attacked the Anderson report, maintaining, for example, that restricting advertising is ineffective in controlling problem drinking.

``Any successful public policy on alcohol needs to reflect the fact that a majority of adults, who choose to drink, do so responsibly," said a statement by the European Forum for Responsible Drinking, an industry group. ``Any proposed solutions must target harm and not alcohol per se."

Although overall alcohol consumption in Europe has dropped since the mid-1970s, rates are rising quickly in a number of categories, such as binge drinking among young people, which is particularly high in Britain, Bulgaria, and Sweden, as well as Denmark. The average adult in the EU consumes 11 liters, or 3 gallons, of alcohol a year, more than 2.5 times the world average and far above the next highest region, the Americas, where the figure is just less than 2 gallons.

Alcohol use in Asia is far lower, but growing quickly. In south European countries like Italy and France, alcohol use is actually decreasing even as consumption has increased in many central and northern countries. In southern and Mediterranean cultures, alcohol is often the wine that accompanies every meal; in the center and north it tends to be beer and spirits.

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