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02.18.11 9:37 PM ET

Does the World Have a Drinking Problem?

Kids' drinking is on the rise, a third of all booze is black market, and nearly half of us have never touched a drink. David Sessions digs into a new report on global alcohol consumption from the World Health Organization and finds some stunning statistics.

1. Nearly Half of Us Have Never Had a Drink

In 2005, annual global alcohol consumption reached 6.13 liters per person over 15 years old. (That's 6.13 liters of pure alcohol, not alcoholic beverages.) But we weren't all imbibing equally: Only about 50 percent of the world’s people consume all of its alcohol, and most of them are in the wealthier Northern hemisphere. In fact, entire countries (mostly Muslim) hardly drink at all. Most shockingly, nearly half the world's population—and more than half of the world's women—have never tippled in their lives.

2. We Love Beer and Liquor, But Wine Not So Much

For all the buzz about wine's pleasures, its artistry and health benefits, very few people actually drink it. A few scattered nations with vibrant wine-production—including France, Italy, Argentina, and Chile—consume mostly wine. But an overwhelming majority of the world prefers beer (North America, most of Europe, most of South America) or spirits (Russia and much of Asia). About 45 percent of the alcohol consumed in the world is in the form of liquor, while beer has been growing in popularity in traditionally wine-loving southern European countries like Spain.

3. Europeans Are Earth’s Biggest Drinkers

Europeans drink more than the inhabitants of any other continent on the planet. In 2005, they consumed 12.18 pure liters of alcohol per capita, compared to the 8.67 liters per capita consumed in the Americas, 6.23 liters in southwestern Asia, and 6.15 liters in Africa. Thanks to vodka-loving Russians, spirits slightly edge out beer as the European drink of choice, with wine placing a distant third.

4. Ireland Is the World's Drunkest Country

After a financial crash that pushed their government into bankruptcy, the Irish may at last have a good excuse for imbibing like crazy. And they'll need it: In the years measured by the World Health Organization, the Irish consumed a staggering 14.1 liters of pure alcohol per capita, putting them well ahead of the boozy Russians. Not surprisingly, beer is their drink of choice.

5. Americans Are Drinking Less Than Europeans, But Dying More Often From It

Americans aged 15 and up drink only three-quarters as much alcohol as Europeans, but are far more likely to be involved in fatal alcohol-related accidents or die from other alcohol-related causes. There’s no single reason Americans are less responsible with alcohol, but some speculate that a higher legal drinking age in the U.S. leads to more destructive underage drinking habits. Another explanation: Far more Europeans take public transportation home from the bar.

6. Russians Are the World’s Most Hazardous Drinkers

Despite having some of the world’s toughest drunk-driving laws, Russia leads the planet in alcohol-related deaths and other negative effects of excessive drinking. Only half as many Americans die from alcohol, and only a fifth as many Europeans. This could be explained by Russia’s rates of binge drinking, which leave the rest of the world in the dust. Astoundingly, alcohol is a factor in one in five deaths among Russian men. Alcoholism is so epidemic in Russia that it ranks as the country’s No. 1 killer, and last year, the government in Moscow banned sales of vodka after 10 p.m.

7. We're Not Drinking Any More or Less Than We Used To...

Global drinking levels stabilized in the early 1990s, and despite a few minor bumps on the graph, they’ve remained relatively constant over the past two decades. What we drink did change, however: beer consumption shot up, and now shares the top spot with spirits, which had previously dominated as the world’s most-consumed form of alcohol.

8. ...But Our Kids Are Drinking a Lot More

The major change in drinking rates that occurred since the 1990s wasn’t for the better. A 2008 WHO survey found that 71 percent of the countries measured had seen an increase in drinking among teenagers aged 13 to 15, and 80 percent had seen an increase among young adults aged 18 to 25. Binge drinking is also on the rise worldwide, which the WHO attributed in part to the rise of “alcopops”—sugary, caffeinated alcoholic drinks like Four Loko.

9. More of Us Are Dying From Alcohol Than From AIDS

Over 2 million people died in 2004 of causes that can be attributed to alcohol consumption, including everything from accidents to diseases. That’s nearly 4 percent of global deaths, far more than were caused by AIDS or tuberculosis.The leading causes of alcohol-related death were cirrhosis of the liver (373,900), traffic accidents (268,000) and other unintentional injuries (223,000).

10. Women Are Abstaining More Than Men

Women who drink rival men in amount of alcohol consumed, and trail men only slightly in incidents of binge drinking. But far more women than men abstain from alcohol altogether: 55 percent of women on Earth have never had a drink, compared with only 35 percent of men. Though higher-income regions have fewer total abstainers, female teetotalers outnumber male ones in every region on the planet.

11. Men Are at Highest Risk for Alcohol-Related Death

In every region of the world, nothing helps send men aged 15 to 59 to the grave more than alcohol does. Drinking contributes to 6.2 percent of global male deaths. Women are much less likely to die of an alcohol-related cause: only 1.1 percent of female deaths are fueled by alcohol. This finding confirmed previous statistics that show men drinking twice as much as women.

12. Nearly a Third of What We Drink Is Black Market

A fact that will probably stun most Americans: Just under 30 percent of all alcohol consumed in the world is "unrecorded"—i.e., not produced or sold through official channels. This could mean anything from booze that's homemade or smuggled, to alcohol that was intended for industrial or medical purposes.

David Sessions is an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast. He has written for Slate, New York, Politics Daily and others. He also blogs about religion and politics at Patrol.