Drinking culture in Central America is the opposite of what you see in the US on Cinco de Mayo

I spent last fall in Guatemala, so I was surprised to discover that Guatemala has about the lowest per-capita alcohol consumption of any predominantly Christian nation. Latin America actually drinks less than the rest of Western Civilization and outside of the famously alcohol-averse Muslim countries, most of Guatemala’s competition for lowest consumption are its Latin-American neighbors in Central America (plus Congo and a few island nations).

There are many Muslim nations with much lower alcohol consumption, but I was surprised that alcohol consumption is so low in Central America compared with the United States. Americans drink almost three times more on average than Central Americans in El Salvador. And the average alcohol consumption statistics for low-consumption nations are dramatically boosted by hard-drinking tourists. Even in hard drinking nations, about 80 percent of alcohol is consumed by less than 20 percent of the population. In low-consumption nations like Guatemala and the Muslim world, you can get ratios where more like 1% of the population (mostly foreigners) consume 90% of the alcohol. In any case, it is certain that most ordinary Guatemalans drink a lot less than the averages suggest.

Maybe I got the stereotype that Latin Americans drink a lot of alcohol from the images I’ve seen of American tourists who drink a lot of alcohol when they visit Latin America. Or perhaps I got the impression from the large number of Latin American alcohol brands in the US. Mexico is by far the world’s biggest exporter of Beer with 25% of the total market which mostly goes to the US, the world’s largest importer with 33% of the world market. Latin America also exports a large amount of hard liquor relative to their total exports and the US, again, is the world’s largest importer. The stereotype might also be reinforced by another part of Latin American culture that the US imported and reappropriated: Cinco De Mayo. This holiday is actually celebrated more in the US than in Mexico and is more of an American holiday than a Mexican one according to the book El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition. It is rarely celebrated in Mexico where it is staid patriotic event more like veteran’s day in the US. On this side of the border it is in the top five biggest drinking days of the entire calendar. Although Mexicans drink considerably less than Americans (27% less), they drink 89% more than Guatemalans, so their consumption is much closer to US levels than Guatemalan.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I met MANY teetotalers in Guatemala and I don’t remember ever seeing any locals who seemed drunk. 36% of Guatemalan adults have never had alcohol in their lives and almost 60% had no alcohol in the past 12 months.  There were also relatively few bars outside of the places that tourists and more cosmopolitan upper-class Guatemalans frequent. My students were limiting themselves to two drinks per day maximum and didn’t drink at all on most days, but the host parents of one family were so worried about that amount of alcohol consumption that they asked us to talk to the student about drinking less. And this was a family that drank alcohol on many weekends themselves, so they weren’t teetotalers, but they did not like having it around more than occasionally. I never saw Guatemalans drinking for a public celebration like you frequently see at a Cinco de Mayo event in the US.

On the other hand, most European nations drink even more than the US. My son just got back from hiking across Spain where average alcohol consumption is 22% higher than in the US. Most food and drink were more expensive in Spain than in the US, but alcohol was the main exception. He even came across a wine fountain where the public can drink wine for free:

That is the kind of commitment to alcohol culture that keeps consumption high in Europe.

Similarly, Europe smokes more than the US and Latin America smokes the least of any part of Western Civilization despite the fact that tobacco originated in America. 

Mexicans smoke about 1/3 as much as Americans and Guatemalans smoke about one ninth as much.

Posted in Globalization & International, Health

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