Binge Drinking Among Teens Sparks Heated Debate in Denmark

by VR Sreeraman on Jul 27 2007 8:36 PM

Drink 'til you drop: that's the goal for thousands of young Danes each summer as they head off on organised tours to Europe's hot spots for raucous pub crawls in what has become a sometimes dangerous teen holiday ritual.

A 17-year-old Dane died earlier this month after drinking so much at the Sunny Beach resort in Bulgaria that he choked on his vomit.

His death has prompted a heated debate in Denmark, which has the highest number of teen drinkers in Europe.

Parents and authorities are now questioning the appropriateness of charter tours organised with the sole aim of offering youths a chance to drink themselves into oblivion.

The dead teen had been partying at Sunny Dreams, one of many watering holes on the Black Sea frequented by young people, where booze flows all night long at next-to-nothing prices.

Some tour operators have specialised in "sex, sun and fun" holidays.

More than 16,000 young Danes, for the most part aged between 16 and 19, travel each year to trendy party spots such as the Greek island of Kos, Lloret de Mar in Spain or Sunny Beach and Golden Sands in Bulgaria.

"It's a crazy party with tonnes of alcohol, and I have to admit I've never been as drunk," Louise Gregersen told Danish daily Ekstra Bladet, recalling her trip last year to Sunny Beach.

In Bulgaria, a half-litre of beer or a cocktail costs five to eight times less than in Denmark.

On the tour operators' websites, Sunny Beach is described as the place "where you drink until you pass out".

They boast of their pub crawls, "where we jump between bars and discotheques at 300 kilometers an hour to show you how to party in the sun."

In Sweden, tour operators have decided to stop offering pub crawls on their trips and have introduced an 18-year age minimum to buy a charter trip.

In Denmark, the indignation is mounting.

The National Board of Health expressed serious concern about "drinking holidays", accusing tour groups of "putting the lives of young people at risk."

Kitt Broholm, a consultant at the National Institute of Public Health, also blames the holiday operators.

"The tourism industry is exploiting the drinking culture among teens, who are already, according to studies, the biggest alcohol consumers among their peers in Europe," she told AFP.

Following the recent Sunny Beach death, Broholm urged tour operators to "be more responsible and develop quality products to attract teens instead of offering them senseless drinking binges."

The head of the Danish parliament's standing committee on health issues, Birthe Skaarup, criticized the tour operators for "encouraging young people to get drunk before they've even turned 18."

"It's illegal, whether it's in Denmark or abroad," she said.

In Denmark, the minimum age at which you can buy alcohol in shops is 16: but for drinking in bars it is 18.

Skaarup blasted "the lack of responsibility shown by parents who send their underage children on this type of holiday."

She said she would urge Health Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen to "intervene to get the travel industry to introduce ethical guidelines for youth travel holidays."

In 2003, Denmark's biggest tour operators stopped offering special youth packages "since we felt that we could not control their excesses," the head of sales at Star Tours, Stig Elling, told AFP.

"But it is parents who are primarily responsible" for the drinking problem, said a spokesman for the National Board of Health.

He cited a recent study showing that parents often let their children drink, and sometimes even bought alcohol for their underage children.

Jesper Schousen, the head of the tour operator Dansk Ungdomsferie, which organised the tour on which the 17-year-old died, described the his death as "tragic" but dismissed any responsibility.

"We are not a school camp where the teachers can impose rules on what is permitted for students," he said.

Binge-drinking is also seen as a problem in other European countries.

A government study released in France last year showed the number of young people admitting to having been drunk at least 10 times in 2005 went up from 6.6 percent to 9.6 percent.

In Germany, where statistics show a similar trend, police on Tuesday arrested a 26-year-old former pub owner suspected of contributing to the death of a teenager who died in March after drinking more than 40 Tequila shots.

The German parliament earlier this month approved a bill banning all drivers under the age of 21 from drinking a drop of alcohol before taking the wheel from next month.

In Spain, the health ministry found that two-thirds of 14-to-18-year-olds drink on weekends, while 34 percent will have drunk to excess at least once a month in a craze that has even has spawned a nickname, "El Botellon."