Dr Peter McCann
The news cycle often highlights the stark differences in drinking cultures in different parts of the world.
The binge drinking culture of Great Britain leading to animalistic Friday night scenes on the streets is contrasted with the Southern European practice of sipping a glass of wine while enjoying a meal with friends in the evening.
The vague notion of culture is often used to explain these differences in drinking patterns.
Perhaps it is some combination of our characteristic reserve as a nation, the importance of pub culture and historically relaxed alcohol use laws.
New Research About the Impact of Weather on Alcohol Abuse
We now have new evidence that the weather and in particular the temperature and amount of sunlight that we are exposed to has a strong influence on how much alcohol we consume.
Furthermore this weather related alcohol consumption is directly linked to our chances of developing the most dangerous form of liver disease, cirrhosis which can ultimately end in liver failure and death.
I recently co-authored a study looking at multiple countries around the world and US, comparing average annual sunshine hours and average temperature with overall alcohol consumption, rates of heavy drinkers and rates of liver cirrhosis attributable to alcohol.
The findings were impressive. There is a direct relationship between reduced sunshine and cold weather and alcohol consumption, heavy drinking and alcoholic cirrhosis.
Essentially as the weather gets colder and sunlight hours go down you are more likely to drink alcohol, and drink it in a harmful way and go on to develop liver disease.
While there has always been an assumption that this is the case, this new study provides useful evidence, and confirmation, that there is a strong environmental factor that influences their drinking habits.
The Question Inevitably Follows: Can Anything be Done About This?
We can’t change the weather, we can’t all move to Spain; especially in a post-Brexit era.
Perhaps subsidised holidays to sunnier climes, or GP prescribed box lights for people in the North of the country.
A more sensible approach might be for us to address the fact that, as a nation we are more predisposed to heavy drinking and cirrhosis due to our environment – and adjust our alcohol and health policies accordingly.
Stricter Laws on Alcohol Abuse Needed to Prevent Liver Cirrhosis
Stricter laws on alcohol pricing are surely justified when we consider the devastating effect of low sunlight and cheaper alcohol on consumption.
Advertising laws should be addressed with restrictions during winter months strongly considered.
Societal changes are harder to achieve but examples from countries such as Iceland, which have addressed problematic drinking and drug use amongst teens by increasing youth activities and programmes have had promising results. Sweden is another country worth looking at – where alcohol is highly taxed and can only be bought in special government shops.
Finally, this report gives us more evidence that Alcohol Use Disorder is a disease with causes outside of people’s control.
We should be providing the highest quality treatment to achieve abstinence and reduce relapse rates through inpatient rehabilitation units using a twelve-step programme.
Cirrhosis is a devastating disease with a high cost to the individual and to society, and we should be doing everything in our power to help those with Alcohol Use Disorder to avoid this outcome.
Dr Peter McCann is a medical advisor to the Castle Craig Hospital Group. He graduated from Kings College London with an MSc in Neuroscience and is currently a Medicine-Psychiatry Resident at Duke University.