The World’s Hardest-Drinking Cities

Drinking is seen as a sign of masculinity in Kiev,” says Daria Meshcheryakova. “People don’t understand how a grown man could be sober in the evenings or on holiday – they would wonder what was wrong with them.” Last year, the Ukraine capital’s city council voted to ban shops from selling alcohol between 11pm and 10am in an attempt to curb excessive all-night drinking. Will it work? Mescheryakova, a local journalist, says generational changes may work to reduce consumption in any case. The biggest drinkers are middle-aged men, she says, “Young people in Kiev, who grew up with the internet, they aren’t as interested in getting drunk.” The former Soviet states in eastern Europe are among the world’s heaviest-drinking countries, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), which mapped the total alcohol consumption of people over the age of 15 in litres per capita across the globe. Elsewhere, countries such as South Korea, Vietnam and Portugal are curious outliers and drink more than the regions that immediately surround them. Australia, Canada and Europe all also have significant levels of drinking.

But although identifying heavy-drinking countries is relatively straightforward from the available data, it is a little trickier to single out individual cities. Lithuania is cited as the heaviest-drinking country in the European Union based on WHO data. On average its population consumes a staggering 15 litres of pure alcohol per person per year – the equivalent of 167 bottles of 12% wine. Its capital, Vilnius, is increasingly popular as a weekend tourist hotspot, and could potentially be a contender for the one of world’s hardest-drinking cities – but locals aren’t so sure. “Problem drinking is not as much of an issue in the capital,” says journalist Ziville Raskauskaite. “It is more [of an issue] in rural areas where people are unemployed and don’t have as much to do in their free time.” That opinion appears to be backed up by a study commission by the Lithuanian Business Confederation, which found that the countryside contained almost twice as many people with a drinking problem as in cities.

Religious, cultural, social and economic factors all make a difference within countries. “In the US, New York and LA have a higher rate of drinking than other areas, as you might expect,” says Max Griswold, lead author of a recent study on global alcohol consumption since the 1980s. “Areas such as Utah are much lower, because of the large Mormon population.” In Africa, a study from the University of Cape Town points to a widespread binge-drinking problem affecting one in seven adults in South Africa. The country is high up in the ranking for alcohol consumption in the continent – possibly because it is home to some of its wealthiest cities. “You’ll find that drinking in Johannesburg or Cape Town isn’t much different from in London or New York,” says Munya Shumba, a Johannesburg resident who works in the financial sector. “You get the same brands of whisky and beer, and the bars and pubs are full on a nice day after work.” Alcohol consumption has also been a problem over the border in Namibia. In 2017 police in Windhoek, the capital, introduced breathalyser tests for pedestrians involved in motor accidents, as well as for drivers. A police spokesperson said “most of the time, victims will be coming from bars and under the influence of alcohol, which makes it difficult for them to fully concentrate on the road.” Ahead of the decision, a report found that between 1 January and 4 October 2016, 147 pedestrians were killed on Namibian roads and 832 were injured.

In some cities, work culture has long revolved around drinking as a way of team bonding. In Seoul, home to half the population of South Korea, the preference is for shots of soju, a fermented rice spirit that is 20% alcohol. Research from Euromonitor has shown that South Koreans consume the equivalent of 13.7 shots of spirits per week – twice as many as the stereotypically hard-drinking Russians, for example. Seoul-based companies and the government have been trying to restrain the post-work drinking culture. An outbreak of hepatitis means sharing glasses is now forbidden, and a number of big businesses have been trying to operate a “1-1-9” rule – meaning post-work drinks should be kept to one round, in one location, and end by 9pm.

Fashion can also change drinking habits. Vodka-loving Russia has recently seen a dip in its alcohol consumption, perhaps dovetailing with a growing craft beer scene in Moscow and St Petersburg. However, a BBC factcheck of a government minister’s claim that alcohol consumption in the country had fallen dramatically found that sales of vodka are still robust. India’s booming scotch whisky market has helped drive a rise in Scottish exports of the spirit. While average alcohol consumption isn’t high in India nationally, Griswold says a trend towards whisky-drinking and tasting sessions in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi is showing up in the statistics. “A popular new trend in Mumbai and other large cities has been whisky tasting, especially among women aged 55 and older,” says Griswold. “No other country has this in their data – where women start to drink more as they age – but it is the case in India because of this trend. Women have become quite fond of whisky there, it seems.”

Ultimately, though, it is difficult to say definitively which is the hardest-drinking city in the world. Could it be Seoul, based on that city’s consumption of spirits? Or Kiev, with its macho drinking culture? Drinking in the Ukrainian capital tends to be highly visible – and Mescheryakova describes often seeing groups of men buying cheap alcohol from shops which they then drink sitting on chairs on the pavement outside – but elsewhere it can be completely private. It will always be hard to tell. While nightlife can be an important part of a city’s draw (Berlin has made a concerted effort to protect its nightclubs, for example) heavy drinking can be both a symptom and a cause of social problems, affecting a city’s health, resources and economy.

The WHO analysis of alcohol and health found that globally 3 million people die every year from the harmful use of alcohol, most of them men. For the heavy-drinking men of Kiev this certainly seems to be borne out by the facts: Ukrainian male life expectancy is just 64 years. An analysis of the heaviest-drinking cities in the US also correlated with a high percentage of car accidents involving alcohol in each place, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found excessive drinking to be costly for the US economy, to the tune of $250bn. In the UK, a 2017 police report argued that 24-hour licensing had led to an increase in crime in city centres. A city government’s response to their population’s drinking habits means trying to keep the balance between letting people drink while protecting their safety, and it can be a difficult line to walk.

Credit: Helen Lock for The Guardian, 7 March 2019.