Alcohol Science: Video Illustrates the Frequent Danger of Winter Boozing

You suspected it, and now scientists know for sure.

New research suggests that colder climates can foster an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Turning to booze during times of wintry malaise is nothing new. It’s cold and there’s not much to do besides stay inside — to not drink takes more creativity. But while wintertime drinking may seem as natural as a Russian slugging a vodka or a Wisconsinite sipping a beer, this relationship has never been quantified scientifically. So the question becomes: Do all cold people really drink more, or do we just think that to make ourselves feel better?

“It’s something that everyone has assumed for decades, but no one has scientifically demonstrated it,” Ramon Bataller, M.D., Ph.D., said Thursday. “We couldn’t find a single paper linking climate to alcoholic intake or alcoholic cirrhosis.”

That’s how Bataller, the Chief of Hepatology at the University of Pittsburgh, became part of the first study to, he says, “systematically demonstrate that worldwide and in America, in colder areas and areas with less sun, you have more drinking and more alcoholic cirrhosis.” The video above, released alongside the study published in Hepatology, boils it all down to a simple, chilly point: Colder, darker days translate to more people drinking and more people getting sick from drinking.

These graphs show Liters of Alcohol Intake Per Capita (top), Average Temperature (bottom left), and Average Amount of Sunlight (bottom right). 

Hepatology, John Wiley and Sons

To reach this conclusion, the team of American, Mexican, and Spanish researchers collected data from 193 countries, as well as from 50 states and 3,144 counties within the United States. With the data sourced from the World Health Organization, World Meteorological Organization, and the Institute on Health Metrics Evaluation, the researchers systematically examined average annual sunshine hours, average annual temperature, alcohol consumption numbers, and cases of alcohol-attributable cirrhosis — a damaging scarring of the liver, often caused by chronic alcoholism.

The scientists pinpointed a clear correlation between climate factors and alcohol consumption — colder places with less sunlight tended to be home to people who were more likely to binge drink and more likely to develop cirrhosis. This held true when they considered confounding factors like areas where religious beliefs exclude drinking: Just because heavy drinkers don’t tend to live in warmer Arab countries, for example, this doesn’t negate the fact that colder countries have more drinkers.

While warm weather doesn’t mean people don’t consume a lot of alcohol — other socioeconomic factors can play into that — cold weather is more often aligned. Illustratively, the top two countries whose citizens drink the most alcohol, in liters per capita, are Moldova and Belarus. And the top two US states by the same measure are New Hampshire and Delaware.

It’s the patterns of cirrhosis observed here, the scientists note, that’s the most important aspect of this study. They suggest that policy initiatives aimed at reducing the burden of alcoholism and liver disease should target these geographic areas — places where the days are shorter and colder, and citizens are more likely to head to the bar.

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