Italy is known for its wine production and Mediterranean lifestyle, but Italians are actually drinking markedly less alcohol now than they were just a decade ago, a new study suggests.
What's more, most of the drop has been due to a fall in wine consumption, the study found.
In less than 10 years, the per person rate of alcohol consumption in Italy decreased by 23 percent, dropping from an average of 5.6 drinks per week in 2006 to 4.4 drinks per week in 2014, the researchers found.
This drop was essentially due to a 31 percent fall in wine consumption over the study period, the findings showed. The consumption of beer and spirits by people in Italy remained unchanged during this time, according to the study, published online (Nov. 4) in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism.
"Today, Italy is one of the high-income countries with the lowest levels of alcohol drinking worldwide," said Silvano Gallus, an epidemiologist at the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, Italy, and the lead author of the study. [7 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health]
The substantial decline in drinking in Italy is totally attributable to the dramatic fall in wine consumption within the country since the 1970s, Gallus said. The new study shows that a decreasing pattern of alcohol consumption is continuing into recent decades, he said.
In the study, researchers gathered data from yearly interviews done throughout Italy between 2006 and 2014. During the eight-year period, about 21,500 Italians ages 15 and older were interviewed.
Many factors may explain the country's plunging drinking rates. Changes in eating habits have played a key role: Lunch in Italy has lost its central position as a family meal, and wine is now primarily consumed during dinner, Gallus told Live Science.
In the past, wine was regularly consumed in moderate amounts at both lunch and dinner, Gallus said. Younger people may be drifting away from a Mediterranean dietary pattern and way of drinking, he suggested.
Another reason Italians may be drinking less is the spread of nonalcoholic or low-alcohol drinks, Gallus said. There is also a growing awareness among Italians of alcohol's detrimental health effects, an awareness that has resulted in the implementation of new national policies.
These stricter laws have regulated the sale of alcohol in the country, banned its advertising to minors and restricted maximum legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels in drivers to 0.05 percent, Gallus said. (Until 2001, Italy had the same maximum BAC level of 0.08 percent that is currently enforced for drivers in the United States.)
Italy's downward trend in alcohol consumption has coincided with positive changes in the health of the country's people, the study said.
Decreases have occurred in the country's death rates for liver disease, extensive scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and cancer of the liver, the study found. Other health benefits include declines in the death rates from cardiovascular disease and stroke for both men and women.
Italy now has an extremely low rate of alcoholism compared with other European countries and the United States, reported the latest version of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health.
The WHO report found that the estimated prevalence of alcoholism in Italy in people ages 15 and over was 1 percent in 2010; it was 7.4 percent in the United States and 7.5 percent in other regions of Europe during that same year.
Lower drinking rates have also been seen in other countries in southern Europe, such as France and Spain, but the decline in Italy has been more pronounced, the paper said.
Unlike these three southern European countries, where wine is traditionally the most consumed alcoholic beverage, beer is more popular in the United States, followed by spirits and then wine.
During the years 2006 to 2014 when the new study in Italy was conducted, the per-person consumption rates of alcohol in the U.S. stayed basically the same for all alcoholic drinking, including the individual rates for beer, wine and spirits, the WHO report found.
However, Americans have not historically consumed wine at the high levels observed in Italy, and overall alcohol-consumption patterns in Italy between 1960 and 1995 greatly exceeded the per-person drinking rates found in the U.S. during that time, the WHO report showed.
Despite the drop in alcohol consumption in Italy, the country is far from having successfully solved its alcohol problems, Gallus said. [How 8 Common Medications Interact with Alcohol]
"The drinking behaviors in Italy are rapidly changing toward at-risk patterns, particularly among the young," Gallus said.
He added that he is concerned about a growing pattern of binge drinking; heavy episodic drinking, which is drinking with the intent to become drunk; as well as alcohol consumption outside of meals.