Spirit makers debate ways to tackle binge drinking among EU youth


Party in The Hague, 2006. [David Domingo 2006/Flickr]

While policymakers worry about young people’s drinking habits, the spirits industry has proposed that separate approaches are required to combat alcohol abuse, at a local level, due to the different drinking cultures in the 28 EU member states.

Binge drinking among young people is a growing concern for European policymakers. According to the EU’s first progress report on the Implementation of the EU Alcohol Strategy, harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption is the third largest risk factor for ill health in the EU.

High alcohol consumption is widespread among young people age over 15 in Europe, where the legal drinking age varies from 16 to 20 years. An average adult in the EU consumes 12.5 litres of pure alcohol – or nearly three drinks a day – more than double the world average, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

But binge drinking, defined as episodic excessive drinking, is becoming a major issue among young people, especially in Northern Europe, according to participants at a Brussels event organised on 22 May by SpiritsEurope, a trade organisation.

The pressure on young adults is huge when it comes to drinking, said Fionnuala Sheehan, the director general of a not-for profit organisation set up by Irish alcohol manufacturers and distributors – the Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society (MEAS).

2011 data shows that Irish people drink less frequently than elsewhere, especially compared to Southern Europe. While 60% of people in Portugal say they drink frequently, only 6% say the same in Ireland.

Party time

But young adults in Ireland tend to drink large quantities of alcohol on a single occasion – and they tend to drink fast. Therefore, the MEAS introduced a “pacing campaign”, encouraging young people to drink less on an occasion of drinking and drinking more slowly.

“We are really cutting into the culture in Ireland, but we are doing it in a somewhat indirect way because culture is very hard to tackle head-on. So what we have been doing has been to send a message across of empowerment,” Sheehan said.

She added that in her country, people drink in rounds: A group of people of 6-12 people get together and it would be common that one person would by a round to all the others in the group. Then the next person will buy a round and so on.

“There’s huge pressure to contribute to the round. If you don’t, you are regarded as a cheapskate,” Sheehan said. “That’s not something that anyone wants to be accused of. So there’s pressure to often drink a lot more than you would if you went out on your own or with one or two people. And there’s the additional pressure to then drink as fast as the pace of the fastest drinker in the round, because you don’t want everybody to be waiting for the glasses to be fully empty before you go up to the bar and buy your round for everybody else,” said the MEAS director general.

Conveying the message that parties without alcohol can be fun is difficult in the EU, admitted Géraldine Dichamp, the project manager for Responsible Party, a pan-European campaign sponsored by Pernod Ricard. Responsible Party is a programme that tries to tackle alcohol abuse among young people by working together with the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), the biggest student body in Europe.

Responsible Party aims to prevent excessive drinking among young people by promoting other activities during parties. “The idea is indeed to have fun without alcohol consumption. Moderate consumption is the key word. We are especially concerned about people who drive,” Dichamp said.

‘Tricky work’

Peter de Wolf, director general of STIVA, a Dutch alcohol industry association, said that raising awareness about the legal drinking age has been “tricky” in the Netherlands since self-regulation of alcohol advertising has been the norm in his country.

In 2003, the Dutch Alcohol Forum with representatives from the Health Ministry, NGOs, alcohol industry, retail industry and sports bodies came together to establish an action platform with two focus points: How to raise awareness on a new age limit for drinking and how to ensure that young people over 18 drink responsibly.

De Wolf said that first the stakeholders had to build up trust to create the campaign which took six years, with arguments over content, division of tasks, how to measure targets and evaluation.

“It takes a pretty long time to do it right. You don’t want to be caught in having different expectations along the way because then the project is over,” de Wolf said.

Europeans have the world’s highest per-capita consumption of alcohol, and drinking causes nearly 1-in-10 cases of ill health and premature death.

The European Commission’s informal alcohol strategy, launched in 2006, is set for a detailed evaluation, with the policy objective of reducing the health and social harm caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

>> Read our LinksDossier: Fighting alcohol harm: The EU's strategy under review

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