The use and misuse of alcohol as a beverage is complicated by the particular significance which alcoholic beverages have in the social life of many people. Already in primitive societies anthropological research has shown that alcohol consumption played a special role, such as that of providing group or tribe relief from tension on particular occasions, for instance after the harvest had been gathered in. Such community drinking occasions were strictly controlled by the tribal leaders. The incorporation of use of alcoholic beverage into religious ritual, social hospitality, ceremonial functions and the accompaniment of festive occasions has given the alcoholic beverage a symbolic function in social life today. To this should be added the social function performed by the alcoholic beverage-selling establishment, whether it be the French bistro, the English pub or the ubiquitous bar. Thus few people can escape making judgments on alcoholic beverages, that is to say, whether they wish to drink them, how much they wish to drink, how much is good for them, etc.
Such judgments will usually be couched in some such term as 'moderation' but the line between moderation and alcohol abuse is controversial. Those who drink 'moderately' are much less likely to suffer coronary heart disease than are teetotallers and heavy drinkers, partly because alcohol can alleviate stress. Most people are aware that alcohol abuse does exist and that certain persons become addicted to alcohol; but an ambivalent attitude is nevertheless displayed towards excessive consumption which is often a combination of amused tolerance and condemnation of the addict for his so-called 'vice' and inability to control his drinking.
Total production of alcoholic rose by almost 50% between 1965 and 1980. Two-thirds of the world's output of alcohol during this time was produced in Europe, the USA, and Canada. International trade in alcoholic beverages accounts for less than 1% of the total. Nevertheless, in monetary terms, this amounted to almost $8,730 million in 1980. The main trade flows are between relatively wealthy developed countries.
Between 1965 and 1980 alcohol consumption increased very rapidly in Western countries, but also in Japan, Mexico and the Korean Republic. France and Italy, which were the highest alcohol-consuming countries in Europe in 1970, have reduced consumption from 17.3 litres per head to 12.6, and 16 litres to 9.4, respectively. Alcohol consumption in the UK has risen from 5.3 to 7 litres per head. In Russia, alcohol consumption rose from 11 litres in 1986 to 14.5 litres per capita in 1994. One expert estimates that the average Russian man drinks 250 ml of vodka a day.
In 1997, France led in the per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages in the European Union. Every French citizen over 15 years of age consumed on average the equivalent of 14.1 litres of pure alcohol per year. The Swedes and Finns, with consumption 6.4 and 8.4 litres respectively, were the most sober.
A study found that underage drinking and adult excessive drinking accounted for more than half of the alcohol consumed in the United States. The report Alcohol Consumption and Expenditures for Underage Drinking and Adult Excessive Drinking revealed that in 1999, underage drinking amounted to 19.7 percent of alcohol consumed and adult excessive drinking amounted to 30.4 percent of alcohol consumed - together, $56.9 billion of the total $116.2 billion spent on alcohol.