Is Europe Drinking Too Much?

Jemma Gunning's first drink seemed harmless enough. It was a Chocolate Mudpie, a delectable mix of Bailey's Irish and ice cream. A dozen cocktails followed, chased by "fish bowls" filled to the brim with vodka and fruit juice. That's when the 18-year-old Brit from Somerset signed up for the Bedrock Club's Monday-night Thong Contest. After all, she reasoned, she was on holiday in Faliraki, on the Greek island of Rhodes. "Nobody bats an eyelid out there," she explains, "because everybody knows it's a party town."

Not one to go halfheartedly for the gold, Gunning replaced her bra with a couple of the club's 12-centimeter-long promotional stickers, then ripped those off, too. The audience went wild, voting her tops in the best-bottom contest. Her reward wasn't quite what she expected, however. Just as it seemed the night couldn't get better, an undercover Greek policemen emerged to charge her with indecent exposure and haul her off to jail. Locals had little sympathy. Since packs of drunken European youth began arriving on package deals in 1998, rapes on the island have doubled, street brawls are on the rise and once tranquil Faliraki, which until recently didn't even have a police station, has gained a reputation as "Holiday Hell." Villagers aren't merely upset, Mayor Yiannis Iatrides told a British paper last summer. "They're frightened. By midnight, a lot of these youths are so drunk they begin running around totally naked. It's obscene."

Something radical is happening across Europe. Overall, European adults are drinking less, especially in such countries as France, where wine and the good life have always gone hand in hand. Yet Europe's teenagers are drinking more and more--and they're doing it at a younger age. Worse, it's not just drinking--it's binge drinking. Gunning's chugfest was hardly unusual. Nowadays, having a dozen drinks is almost de rigueur for a weekend out. And the social costs--drunken driving, delinquency, suicides, fights, teen pregnancy--are mounting. The trend is fueled in part by slick alcohol advertising campaigns, new beverage products that appeal to youngsters and an emerging globo-party culture promoted in Western teen movies and at the raves and drink-sponsored rock festivals that have become so popular in recent years.

The statistics are truly mind-boggling. In the U.K., kids younger than 16 drink twice as much as they did 10 years ago, chugging five pints of beer a week. In Ireland 59 percent of men and 26 percent of women between 18 and 29 binge-drink at least once a week. In Denmark, the number of 15-year-olds drinking at least once a week has spiked from 20 percent to 39 percent for girls and from 37 percent to 50 percent for boys since 1988. The French have never shied away from a Pernod or a good glass of wine--in 1990, 45 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds in France were drinkers, a lot by anybody's standards. Now the figure is 70 percent. And it's no longer just wine; half of those polled have switched to hard booze. What's more, 70 percent of girls and 80 percent of boys had their first drink at the tender age of 11.

The surge has been no less radical in the East. Alcohol consumption has always been high in the former communist countries of Europe. But now it's run amok. Drinking among young people has quadrupled in Lithuania, doubled in the Czech Republic and risen 25 percent in Slovakia. In Hungary, alcoholism has risen threefold since the fall of communism; it is now common for children to have their first drink at 12 or 13, instead of 17 or 18. In scenic Prague, bars now cater to busloads of Western tourists who arrive expressly to party--but it's not just the foreigners who are drinking to excess. Across the country, where beer is cheaper than soft drinks, children as young as 11 are showing up in hospital emergency rooms, dropped off by strangers who have found them passed out in their own vomit.

What's fueling this bender? In Eastern Europe, many point to the massive growth in advertising, outdoor festivals and marketing that did not exist under communism. Those are the supposed culprits in the West, too. While Europe's over-20 set has rediscovered the joy of exotic cocktails, like the rum-based mojito and tropical pina coladas, alcohol companies have introduced a whole new series of gateway products that seem tailor-made for the lucrative teen-consumer demographic. The most popular of these, dubbed "alcopops" or "breezers," are sweet, fruit-flavored concoctions heavily laced with spirits. They come in hip, bright packaging with names like Mike's Hard Lemonade, Tequiza, Sublime and Hooper's Hooch. Half soft drink, half hard-core liquor, they're easy to drink--and drink fast. And they're intended to appeal chiefly to kids. Says Simona Anav of Italy's Permanent Observatory on Youth and Alcohol: "What adult is attracted to fruity neon-colored drinks?"

It's a little easy to blame advertisers to the exclusion of all else. After all, drinking is a choice, not a compulsion, and other factors are at work as well, ranging from the fact that alcohol prices have gone down as Europe knits into a common market to the influence of more global trends. Drinking among young people is rising in most industrialized societies, not just Europe. Still, if you doubt the central role of marketing in the phenomenon, think again. One American study recently found that Budweiser's cartoon frogs were more familiar to schoolchildren than such cartoon-cereal characters as Tony the Tiger and Snap, Crackle and Pop. Irish researchers interviewed teens about the appeal of various advertisements and found that alcohol ads --particularly for Guinness and Budweiser--rated the highest out of ads for all other consumer products. Liquor companies have increasingly become sponsors for popular teen events: all-night dance parties, raves, music concerts, club nights and sporting events. Among other examples: Ireland's Heineken cup for rugby, and the Green summer concert series in Denmark and Sweden sponsored by Tuborg.

Unsurprisingly, the liquor industry has come under a barrage of criticism by everyone from parent's associations to governments. "Many factors other than advertising influence decisions to purchase and/or consume alcohol, and many researchers have concluded that advertising has a relatively weak effect on consumption, although it can have a powerful effect on brand switching," says Jean Coussins, chief executive of the Portman Group, a U.K. drinks-industry group. Bacardi, maker of many of the most popular alcopops, declined repeated requests for comment.

The ubiquity of alcopops would be hard to deny. They first appeared in Britain and Ireland in the mid-1990s--where teen drinking is among the highest in Europe--and have since been growing at a blistering 21 percent annually, according to Datamonitor, a London-based market-analyst firm. Breezers are "fashionable," says Dr. Dirk Korf of the University of Amsterdam, who organizes a yearly survey of the trendsetters in youth culture. "They have become the most dominant alcohol among young adolescents." They've also helped inspire a whole wave of subsidiary industries. A new breed of no-frills airlines, based in Britain, Iceland, and elsewhere have sprung up, offering discount package tours to mobs of thirsty, mostly young people looking to binge abroad. Bars and nightclubs catering to the new arrivals have opened up in Moscow, Prague, Greece and Madrid. And from Majorca to Crete, the long-reviled spectacle of loud beer-guzzling Germans seems suddenly quaint in comparison with the packs of young rabble-rousers who fight, pee in doorways and carouse in the streets.

Earlier this summer in Faliraki, where Gunning was jailed, a 17-year-old British teen was killed with a broken bottle; 14 others were arrested. In Rome, underage teen drinkers now cluster on the steps of picturesque piazzas every night, swigging from open bottles and harassing the crowds of elderly shoppers, tourists and even nuns. Says one waitress at the Drunken Ship, a cornerstone on central Rome's picturesque Campo dei Fiori, "They are a menace! They throw bottles, they spit at our clients. And it's just getting worse." In Madrid, young people take over the city's plazas for all-night drinking sessions known as elbotelon ("the big bottle"), where the drink of choice is a home-brewed kind of alcopop called calimocho--red wine mixed with Coke. According to Datamonitor, the 31 percent increase in alcohol consumption among young Spanish women since 1999 is the largest in Europe, and their drinking is predicted to grow a further 60 percent by 2007. (Young British women still lead the pack, drinking 203 liters of alcohol per person in 2002, compared with Spain's 72.)

The social costs are heavy and rising. In southern Italy, where the number of young drinkers has risen by 80 percent in the past decade, drinking is directly responsible for the "weekly Friday- and Saturday-night slaughter on Italian roads," according to one expert. In Ireland, alcohol-related cancers are on the rise. The U.K. has seen a tripling of alcohol-related deaths among young men and women over the past 20 years, and 40 percent of all emergency- ward admissions are now alcohol-related. All told, according to one study, roughly one quarter of all deaths of men between the ages of 15 and 29 in Western Europe can now be attributed directly to alcohol. In Eastern Europe, that figure is one third. The U.K. government puts the financial cost of alcohol misuse among the population at 20.1 billion a year, including 7.3 billion in crime and disorder, plus 4.7 billion in human and social costs of crime. There are an estimated 1.2 million incidents of alcohol-related violence each year, and an estimated 17 million working days are lost to alcohol-related absence.

Many governments remain conflicted, torn between the disturbing numbers, and their powerful liquor lobbies. A number have responded to arguments from big business that lower liquor taxes are necessary to reduce smuggling over the EU's increasingly porous borders; and the lower prices make it easier for teens to purchase booze. Still many are also beginning to take some steps to try to contain the problem. Italy's Health Ministry recently launched a campaign to bar alcohol advertising targeting young people. It is now illegal to encourage excessive consumption, show alcohol addiction, address advertising to minors, link alcohol and driving or point out alcohol content in any advertising. In September, the Swiss Parliament passed a law imposing a $1 tax on each bottle of alcopop as a "youth-protection measure." Danish legislators imposed the first-ever age requirement on alcohol purchases in 1998, setting it at 15. In Poland, where 71 percent of children 11 to 15 admitted drinking alcohol at least once, lawmakers passed a tough new anti-alcoholism law in 2001 aimed at reducing youth drinking. The law severely restricted advertising and sport sponsorships by alcohol manufacturers and added a series of alcohol taxes. Ireland is debating lowering its drunken-driving limits and requiring more warning labels on alcoholic beverages; Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has publicly called on liquor companies to "refuse to produce, import, distribute or sell" alcopops. "It is not possible for the government under EU internal-market rules to ban such drinks, otherwise we would do so," he reportedly told industry representatives at a convention.

But all that is mere background noise to the legions of young adolescents discovering the new products. And it still remains remarkably easy for young Europeans to obtain and consume liquor. Just ask Tina and Maja. One recent day, the two 13-year-olds sat on a bench in suburban Copenhagen drinking beer and discussing the relative merits of vodka, beer, Bacardi Breezers and Smirnoff Ice. "Sometimes I do it to--I won't say get drunk, but, you know--to have fun," says Tina. "And also because all the other kids do." That's just it. Until governments--or parents--come up with a way to convince teenagers that drinking leads to alcoholism and myriad social ills, Europe seems destined for a long, miserable hangover.