Dr Matti Reinikainen is concerned that many residents of Finland are fooling themselves into believing their excess alcohol use is normal and will as a result have no affect on their health. As Chair of the Department of Intensive Care at the North Karelia Central Hospital, he sees the effects of heavy alcohol use every day. A significant proportion of the patients his unit treats require intensive care because of their drinking.
“Kidney failure and pancreatitis are common, but we also attend to a wide variety of injuries that have taken place because the patient was inebriated. A quite typical situation is that a person has failed to care for a previous illness or injury because they have been drinking,” he says.
Oftentimes patients try to cover up their drinking problem. When doctors inquire about their alcohol use, most reply that it is normal. When pressed to describe their ‘normal’ alcohol consumption, however, it becomes quickly clear that the person’s drinking habits extend far beyond reasonable levels.
“What one person describes as normal turns out to be half a dozen beers a day and maybe even a bottle of spirit on the weekends,” says Reinikainen.
‘Low risk’ is not ‘no risk’
Reinikainen says that all of his patients that have contracted health problems because of their alcohol use are by no means alcoholics. He is also concerned that the limits set for so-called low-risk drinking are often misunderstood.
“It is a “low-risk limit”, not a “no-risk limit”. Surpassing low-risk consumption levels increases the probability of health hazards, but some people may nevertheless develop health problems from very infrequent drinking. It is highly individual,” the doctor says.
Health problems associated with alcohol use have grown significantly in Finland over the last decade, after the government decided to cut alcohol taxation in 2004. In the last few years, problem drinking among women has become more apparent, something Reinikainen has also witnessed in his Joensuu hospital.
“From time to time we treat an older woman who has developed a serious illness that can be traced back to a history of alcohol abuse. This kind of thing was unheard of a few years ago.”