Why the Decrease in Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages in Italy between the 1970s and the 2000s? Shedding Light on an Italian Mystery

Article excerpt

Between the 1970s and 2000s several changes occurred in the amount and pattern of alcohol drinking in Europe. The case of Italy, with a sharp drop in wine consumption despite the lack of any preventative measure, seems paradoxical and needed a specific study. The research aim was to demonstrate that significant changes in lifestyle conditions that started taking place in the early 1970s in Italy are able to explain the strong reduction in wine consumption during the period.

KEY WORDS: Drinking cultures, drinking pattern, prevention, lifestyle conditions.

The problem: European cultures and changes in alcohol consumption

It is well known that different cultures have different attitudes towards alcoholic beverages and psychoactive substances. An example of this is the contrast between southern and northern Europe. The former region is considered to be a "wet" culture (with Italy being one of its main representatives), and the latter a "dry" culture (Room 1992; Prina 1993). In the former region, the thousand-year-old "wet" cultural tradition has been passed down through generations where, starting from childhood, a bottle of wine was set at the dining table accompanying meals. This made it a pleasure to drink in moderate quantity and drinking was common in the family. The effects drink may have had on people's behavior were not very evident, and alcoholic beverages were not a big concern of the institutions controlling public health, so there were no specific restrictions and control programs.

In the "dry" cultural tradition, the psychoactive value attributed to alcohol, and the limited integration of its consumption in daily life, created a situation of alcoholic beverages being drunk away from meals. This resulted in social disinhibitions and the highlighting of individuality, versus the conformity and rigidity imposed by society. In the dry regions, an equivalent amount of alcohol consumed over a given period of time, calculated as a daily average, had a greater effect than in a "wet" culture region. Alcohol was not consumed daily at a moderate rate, but only at weekends and in relatively high quantities.

Southern Europe's attitude towards alcoholic beverages seems well expressed by the following excerpt from The Odyssey, written by the great Mediterranean poet, Homer:

"It is a good thing to hear a bard with such a divine voice. . . . There is nothing better or more delightful than when a whole people make merry together, . . . sitting orderly to listen, while the table is loaded with bread and meats, and the cup-bearer draws wine and fills his cup for every man" (The Odyssey by Homer IX, translated by Samuel Butler).

Significant differences may also be observed in government policies about alcohol. While in northern countries there is a noticeable formal control on consumption, in Italy and other "wet-culture" countries, informal control prevails, as laws regarding alcohol consumption are very few and, generally speaking, not often enforced.

Over the past few decades, however, a transformation has been taking place in drinking patterns of southern European societies, essentially a sharp decrease in consumption of alcoholic beverages, particularly wine, that, at least for France, has been attributed to cultural changes primarily involving the middle classes (Pyärälä 1990; Sulkunen 1989). Such transformations are paralleled by an increase in drinking amounts in northern European countries, as part of broader changes in drinking that involve European countries, which might be interpreted as an expression of "modernization" (Sulkunen 1989) or globalization processes.

The problem: Changes in alcohol consumption in Italy and prevention policies

Over the past few decades a transformation has been taking place in Italy too. Firstly, there has been a large decrease in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Over the past 30 years, Italy has experienced the biggest drop in alcohol consumption of any European country: from 15. …