Alcohol's position in the culture differs from one society to another (Room & Makela, 2000). One dimension of this variation is between what have been described as "wet" and "dry" societies (Room, 1989). Although the distinction can be made more generally, it has often been stereotypically described in terms of the difference between Northern European "spirits" or "beer cultures" and Southern European "wine cultures." At the "dry" end of this contrast, alcohol is held apart from everyday life as a special commodity for special contexts; drinking has traditionally been sporadic, often at festivals or weekends, with a high proportion of drinking occasions involving intoxication. At the "wet" end of the contrast, drinking is a part of everyday life (at least for men) and frequently accompanies meals. Overtly intoxicated behavior is reported to be rare, presumably reflecting both the tolerance built up by a regular consumer and a cultural banalization of the psychopharmacological properties of an everyday item of consumption.
The contrast is often also characterized in terms of differing histories of social responses to drinking (Levine, 1992). Although there were temperance organizations in both Italy (Cottino and Morgan, 1985) and France (Prestwich, 1988) around 1900, for example, they were relatively small in scale, with a constituency confined to the elite. Germany's temperance movement, though it reached further into working-class circles, also had limited scope (Roberts, 1984). In Britain (Harrison, 1971) and other English-speaking countries, and north of the Baltic (Johansson, 2000), temperance became an important social movement, substantially reducing the rates of social and health problems from drinking in the 80 years or so before 1930.
Contrasting "wet" and "dry" cultures is not without problems, particularly if the frame of reference is expanded to a global perspective (Room et al., 1996; Room and Makela, 2000). Even within Western Europe the dichotomy is somewhat problematic. Is it primarily a reflection of the distinction between "temperance cultures" (Levine, 1992)-societies where the temperance movement was very strong-and others? In that case, the "dry" side of the dichotomy would presumably include Finland, Sweden, Norway, the U.K. and Ireland. Alternatively, the "dry" side could be defined as societies in which spirits drinking predominated, which would limit it to Finland, Sweden and Norway until recent decades, and to no country in Western Europe nowadays (Leifman, 2001). Or is the crucial differentiation whether wine is drunk every day with meals? In that case, the "dry" side might include all Western European countries except Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France.
A further complication is that in recent years there has been considerable convergence in levels of drinking in Europe; alcohol consumption levels have fallen sharply in the wine countries of the south and have risen in most countries to their north (Leifman, 2001). At this point, for example, Italy's per capita consumption is lower than Ireland's. There has also been some homogenization in terms of beverage choice: spirits drinking has declined in the north, while wine and beer drinking have risen; and wine drinking has declined in the south, while beer drinking has increased. However, despite these trends, qualitative differences in drinking patterns among different parts of Europe seem to persist; Simpura (2001) notes that many of these "seem very persistent, and immune to change, even over decades."
A hypothesis that drinking plays a stronger causal role in violence in "dryer" cultures than in "wetter" cultures has long been latent in the literature (see, for example, Christie, 1965). The most-developed tradition of research testing this hypothesis has been through auto-regressive time-series analyses correlating changes in per capita alcohol consumption with changes in indicators of violence, in particular homicide and suicide rates. …