Page last updated at 15:57 GMT, Friday, 19 September 2003 16:57 UK

How the Europeans drink

As Britons were revealed as the biggest binge drinkers in Europe, BBC correspondents look at European attitudes to alcohol.

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC Moscow correspondent

A famous Russian saying claims drinking beer without vodka is like throwing money to the wind. Few people here see any point in half measures.

Beer and wine sales are rising, but vodka remains the national tipple of choice.

Absolutely Fabulous character Patsy
Serious drinking remains mainly a man's game

I have been offered vodka by farmers as they brought in the harvest and by teachers on the first day of school.

And it is there, and unavoidable, at almost every social occasion.

The Russian approach is simple. Once a bottle has been opened it is rude not to finish it.

And that means downing shot after nose-wrinkling shot, washed down with whatever is closest. There is usually a special toast for every round.

There's no real tradition of a quick pint after work. Having a drink in Russia tends to mean something sat-down and more serious.

It usually comes with something more substantial than an extra-sized bag of crisps.

The scale and cost of drinking in the UK

The restaurant culture is growing for those who have money but most alcohol is still consumed at home, around the table.

Serious drinking remains mainly a man's game. There is little shame in being drunk. But in some circles refusing a round is a sign of disrespect and best avoided.

Russian men do not live long and alcohol remains a major factor, especially among the poor.

Every summer dozens of drunks are fished from rivers and lakes. Every winter, they are found frozen in snowdrifts.

And in many villages, drunkenness is a way of life. Homemade vodka - or Samogon - is frequently used instead of cash.

It's made at up to 80% proof and tested with a match.

By Paul Rocks
In Puerto Banus, Spain

It only takes a Sunday afternoon to see the different attitude the Spanish have to alcohol in comparison to the British.

I was invited to Sunday lunch with Spanish friends to a village restaurant last week and in typical fashion, there was alcohol involved.

But there was no throwing it down your neck to make room for the next drink.

We started off with the wine as the food began to arrive.

Even the younger teenagers were given a small glass to sip on, although their parents kept a watchful eye.

Civilised approach

As the meal finished, the local brandy was ordered and the conversation really started.

But this was a slow affair with the flow of alcohol tempered by the snacks that kept arriving at the table throughout the afternoon.

There was plenty to drink but no-one was falling over.

Many Mediterraneans drink mainly when they eat
It was simply off home afterwards for a Sunday afternoon nap.

Later in the evening, I took a stroll along the marina at Puerto Banus and found a very different atmosphere among young British drinkers.

At one of the main seafront bars, there were two hen parties and a stag party putting the final touches to their weekend - a regular occasion here.

It was obvious they had either been drinking all day or else topping up from the night before. They were in bad shape.

These elegantly dressed ladies were doing the rounds of shots when clearly a glass of water would have been better.

The locals looked on with a sense of bemusement - because the Spanish do not like to rush anything, including a drink.

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Lyon, France

Unlike some in Britain, the French tend to drink for the pleasure and the taste, rather than with the express intention of getting drunk.

Wine is generally an accompaniment to a meal, perhaps after an aperitif, chosen carefully to match the food, not simply gulped down rapidly at a bar.

In the evenings, meals at cafes and restaurants also tend to be a family affair.

Good food and good wine are a natural part of our lives here in France
Paul Bocuse
French chef
It is not uncommon to see young children being given a sip of wine to introduce them to the flavour, and learn how to enjoy the taste.

So children in France grow up with wine as a normal part of life.

Where I live, in the Marais, an area of Paris crammed with restaurants and bars, Friday and Saturday nights are a little noisier and busier than weeknights.

And yet there is little sense of anyone drinking purely to get drunk.

The idea of a group of young women going out for the evening with the sole intention of ending up plastered unglamourously on the pavement is virtually unheard of in Paris.

One reason for that is perhaps a more closely-knit family structure with young adults tending to live and eat at home.

Equally, the French tend to socialise less with colleagues after work in the evening - preferring to eat with their family and friends.

Gastronomic delight

"Good food and good wine are a natural part of our lives here in France, " said top French Chef Paul Bocuse.

And, perhaps, this is part of the explanation.

French friends they say binge drinking is a rarity here, even at university. Beer is served in smaller measures, and losing control is not generally seen as "cool" behaviour for young people, especially not for women.

Although the French drink more per head of population per year than the British, alcohol is treated as part of a wider gastronomic culture - there to be enjoyed and savoured, rather than abused.

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