Aims: We investigated the presence of social inequalities of alcohol use and misuse using educational attainment as an indicator of socio-economic status in 15 countries: Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Israel, Brazil, and Mexico. Methods: Study surveys were independently conducted and the data centrally analysed. Most samples were national. Survey modes and sample sizes varied. The age range was restricted to between 25 and 59 years of age. Socio-economic status was measured by educational level. Multiple logistic regressions were employed to calculate age-adjusted odds ratios for men and women in each country by educational level for current drinking status, heavy drinking (≥20 g ethanol per day for women, ≥30 g a day for men), heavy episodic (binge) drinking, and alcohol-related problems (using AUDIT). Results: Men and women demonstrated similar patterns in inequalities with regard to current drinking status within a country. In Germany, The Netherlands, France, Switzerland, and Austria higher educated women were most likely to drink heavily, while among men the lower educated were more at risk in most countries. For heavy episodic drinking, almost no significant differences were evident among women, but for men a social gradient was observable with lower educated being more at risk in several countries. Among five countries with data from the AUDIT, men of lower education in Finland, Czech Republic, and Hungary had higher risks to report problems. Nordic countries shared a common pattern in social inequalities as did two Latin American countries, while a mixed picture was observed for middle European countries. Social inequalities in the two Latin American countries display a pattern emerging in other research on developing countries: namely that those in the higher educated groups are more likely to consume alcohol in a risky manner. Conclusions: Patterns in the distribution of social inequalities are not universal. Social inequalities in alcohol use differ by gender according to alcohol measure used and differ also across groups of countries. These variations should be taken into account when formulating international and cross-cultural alcohol policies.

Author notes

1Unit for Health Promotion Research, University of Southern Denmark, Esbjerg, Denmark, 2Institute for Biostatistics and Clinical Epidemiology, Charité—University Medicine Berlin, Germany, 3Swiss Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Problems (SIPA) and 4Alcohol Treatment Center, Lausanne University Hospital, Switzerland