By Christopher Sopher
Many Americans idolize a culture where Europeans—accustomed to alcohol after years of experience in their teenage years—supposedly know how to avoid binge drinking, alcohol poisoning and hazy nights of bad judgment. It’s a particularly popular topic of conversation among 19-year-old college students, waiting in grocery store parking lots for older friends to bring out cases of beer. “The drinking age is so stupid,” they say. “If only it was like it is in Europe,” suggesting with little sense of irony that, were the drinking age lower, they would both drink more moderately and enjoy the new found freedom to buy $11 cases of Natural Light.
In theory, it’s a winning idea for all involved. Young people can drink earlier in their lives, which promises more of the freedom from judgment and reason teenagers desire. Parents can believe their children are getting important early experience that, as in any other sport, helps them become better players—and helps them get a head start on the 10,000 hours of practice Malcolm Gladwell says are necessary to become an expert at something. And the data shows many European and American young people are already well on their way.
But the evidence also suggests the differences between how young people drink in Europe and the United States aren’t nearly as great as we imagine—and the generational changes are tremendous. By most measures, European youth actually drink more, get drunk more, and do so earlier in life than their American peers (though in certain settings, such as colleges and universities, American youth still lead the drinking world). And there’s surprisingly little evidence that introducing young people to alcohol earlier or lowering the drinking age does anything except lower the age at which young people start to drink.
“The number of British, German, Scandinavian and other teenagers stumbling into hostels at 5 a.m. in London, Paris or Prague is pretty overwhelming,” said one American college student traveling in Europe, who asked not to be named discussing drinking. “Lax drinking laws, a low drinking age, and a plethora of discos, bars and clubs give kids a lot of opportunities to get totally out of control.”
Survey data and the concern of European officials support her observation. A 2008 survey found that “while young people in most European countries are drinking less frequently than their parents and grandparents, they are consuming more alcohol each time they drink,” which is similar to the U.S. trend of infrequent but heavy drinking. Data from major surveys compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the U.S. had lower rates of drinking and binge drinking among 15-16-year-olds than every European country except Turkey (which, as a predominantly Muslim country, has strong cultural stigmas against alcohol).
“Drinking to get drunk” has become much more common in Europe over the past two decades, with several surveys reporting a growing number of teenagers and young adults who say they drink for the “buzz” or to “get [insert your favorite term for drunkenness].”
“Binge drinking culture is definitely growing in Europe, and alcoholism has always been a problem,” said Charles Pellegrin, a French graduate student who has lived in several countries.
Traditionally beer-oriented countries such as the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Germany lead the statistics on youth drinking, drunkenness and alcohol-related problems—but wine countries appear to be catching up as French, Spanish and Italian young people choose beer and liquor over wine, and choose it in larger quantities.
Several Spanish and American students I interviewed discussed the trend of “botellon,” (literally “big bottle”) where Spanish teenagers sit outside in parks or on the street and drink together. This summer France has been overrun by the phenomenon called “apéro géant” (“giant aperitif”), where thousands of young people gather in flashmobs in French cities to party and drink very, very heavily.
All of this suggests that the merits of a lower drinking age and of early familiarization with alcohol might be something of a myth, too. In many European countries, the discussion about binge drinking is focused on 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds, not college students. Many European authorities are encouraging parents to take a more active role in educating their children about, and discouraging them from, drinking.
“I think that a lower drinking age just causes binge drinking a little earlier,” said one American student who studied abroad in Spain.
The evidence suggests that the differences in drinking culture between American and European youth aren’t as tremendous as we often assume. And in a globalized world where you can buy a Bacardi Breezer in 30 languages, that isn’t surprising. The differences seem more subtle, more cultural.
“Much like in the U.S., there are parties that result in people being a little too drunk,” said the American living in Switzerland. “I think that is the same across the globe, but here in Europe, alcohol is less frowned upon. But I can say for sure, when kids celebrate their sixteenth or eighteenth birthday over here, there is no focus of, ‘Yes! Now we can drink!’”
What are your experiences with European and American drinking culture? What are your thoughts on the drinking age?