Is binge drinking in youth on the rise?

Since the 1990s, global alcohol consumption has remained stable at a per capita consumption of 4.3-4.7 litres of pure alcohol. (See the WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2011). But we also know that this statistic hides changes in patterns of alcohol use. Alcohol use is increasing in certain parts of the world; and, women in some countries are starting to use alcohol in areas where previously only men drank alcohol. Patterns of binge drinking in youth are especially concerning from a public health perspective.

I was interested in a recent study looking at how “drunkenness” or binge drinking has changed (or not changed) in Europe and North America between 1997/98 and 2005/06.

Kuntsche et al (2011) used data from 80 000 adolescents from 23 countries surveyed over 8 years. 15 year old boys and girls were asked about their frequency of drunkenness (“Have you ever had so much alcohol that you were really drunk?”). The results across countries showed that in 2005/2006, 15-year-old adolescents had on average been drunk 2 to 3 times in their lives.

Gender differences, which were well pronounced in 1997/1998, decreased significantly by 2005/2006. This suggests that differences between boys and girls are “converging” or diminishing.  In particular, they found:

  • In the seven countries surveyed in Eastern Europe, the mean frequency of drunkenness significantly increased between 1997/1998 and 2005/2006, with an overall increase of approximately 40%. Significant increases were found for girls in all seven countries, whereas for boys the increase was significant in only three countries.
  • In the 16 Western countries surveyed, there was an an average decrease of approximately 25% in drunkenness. Drunkenness frequency decreased significantly among boys in 8 countries and among girls in 7 countries.
  • In Canada, the decrease in drunkenness was larger among boys than girls.
  • In most countries gender differences generally decreased.  Despite this  gender convergence, boys continued to have a higher frequency of drunkenness than girls in 2005/2006.

It’s hard to know what’s driving this gender convergence. Is it due to changes in the social roles of girls and women? The effectiveness of alcohol marketing practices that target girls? The relative ineffectiveness of policies and programs with girls?


Kuntsche, E., Kuntsche, S., Knibbe, R. et al. (2011). Cultural and Gender Convergence in Adolescent Drunkenness Evidence From 23 European and North American Countries. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 165(2): 152-158. DOI: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.191 PMID: 20921343

Simons-Morton BG, Farhat T, ter Bogt TF, Hublet A, Kuntsche E, Nic Gabhainn S, Godeau E, Kokkevi A; HBSC Risk Behaviour Focus Group. (2009). Gender specific trends in alcohol use: cross-cultural comparisons from 1998 to 2006 in 24 countries and regions.  Int J Public Health, 54 (Suppl 2):199-208. DOI:  10.1007/s00038-009-5411-y. PMID: 19618110 Free full-text from PMC.