ONE in six people in Spain drinks dangerously-high amounts of alcohol, and three-quarters of the country's inhabitants believe their drinking to be less serious than it really is, according to a recent survey.
Danish medicine manufacturer Lundbeck interviewed a sample of 4,250 people across Spain, and concluded that 17.1%, or a sixth of the population drinks too much alcohol, but only 1.3% admit to it.
Overall, 76% of those who abuse alcohol do not realise they are doing so.
Researchers used two methods for working out high-risk drinkers based upon cultural attitudes and habits – Mediterranean countries tend to see more people drinking moderate amounts daily, whilst binge-drinking, or excessive intake once or twice a week, is more common in northern European countries where alcohol is more expensive, such as in the UK.
Risks typically vary between men and women due to body weight, bone and muscle density.
A high-risk drinker is a man who consumes at least four units a day or a woman who consumes two units daily.
Danger from binge-drinking is taken to be five-plus units in one session for a man, or four-plus for a woman.
A half-pint of beer, glass of wine or finger of spirit or liqueur counts as a unit.
Alcohol and drug researcher Julio Bobes says Spain is 'always one of the countries where people drink the most', together with Italy, France and Portugal.
But it is not true that 'everyone in Spain drinks' – according to the study, fewer than a quarter, or only 23.5% of Spaniards consume alcohol more than twice-weekly.
Men drink more than women in Spain, with 19.6%, or nearly one in five being considered 'high-risk' compared with 14.5% of females, and the 25-and-under age-group is the one which consumes the most alcohol.
Fewer Spanish men described themselves as teetotal than women – 16.6%, compared with 27%.
Scientists have long held that the human brain does not stop developing at the age of 18, when it is legal to drink in most countries, but that the organ is still in evolution until the mid-20s.
Given that alcohol can adversely affect a brain that is not yet developed, technically, nobody should be drinking before the age of 25 to 27.
Lundbeck also found that being alcoholic was considered a vice in over half of all cases – 12.4% said it was just a very bad habit, whilst a third said it was a bad habit that became an illness.
In all cases, Lundbeck insists, alcohol addiction is an illness and should be treated as such, since feelings of guilt and shame often mean those affected do not seek professional health early enough.
With 40,000 deaths a year in Spain from alcohol-related illness – of which a total of 64 have been counted, including certain types of cancer, mental illness, liver cirrhosis and hepatitis – encouraging addicts to get help quickly is crucial.
Most respondents to the survey said their GP would be the first person they called upon for practical help if they realised they were an alcoholic, and highlights the fact that doctors in Spain are highly-trained in dealing with drink-related problems.
Associations and rehab centres, including Alcoholics Anonymous, would be a second resource after a doctor, but psychologists came a lot further down the list.
This was not the case for younger respondents, who said they would turn to a psychologist first – highlighting a loophole in addiction prevention and treatment, since few mental health professionals are based full-time in local practices.
Dr Antoni Gual of Barcelona's Hospital Clínic said the 'trend' was more worrying than the figures, with drinkers getting younger and consuming more.
He says governments in Spain have 'failed badly' in controlling alcohol consumption by not legislating on maximum amounts that can be served, on publicity or on prices.
“The alcohol industry spends €1 million a day on advertising, which is totally unethical,” Dr Gual complains.