MADRID, Spain — Friday night in a Madrid square. Dozens of adolescents hanging out. Two-liter soda bottles strewn at their feet, along with colorful gin and rum bottles. Teens mix their own drinks for hours, to the indifference of passersby.
While Spaniards are known for their social drinking, even during their teens, this scene of excess is a relatively new one. Spanish adolescents have taken to binge drinking.
A recent Ministry of Health survey revealed that while one in four teenagers drank to get drunk 10 years ago, a full 50 percent of them do so now.
“Unfortunately, Spanish teens have copied the Anglo-Saxon model. In our Mediterranean culture, we usually consume fermented drinks such as wine and beer with less alcohol than distilled spirits, and we drink with our meals,” said Jose Luis Sancho, a psychologist and coordinator of minors in Madrid for Proyecto Hombre, an NGO that helps people with addictions.
“Botellon,” literally “big bottle” in Spanish, is the local lingo for the BYOB (bring your own booze) phenomenon of young people meeting in outdoor public places with the purpose of consuming alcohol. Some gatherings consist of small groups of friends. Others are massive, attended by the thousands thanks to texting or social networks like Facebook. While these "macrobotellones" are organized by college students, high schoolers participate too.
Moderate consumption has always been socially acceptable in Spain. Only a generation ago, grade-school kids were introduced to alcohol at home — they were served shandy beer by their parents at meals or a drop of sparkling wine over the Christmas holidays.
“We coexisted with alcohol, there was a wine bottle at the table every day. But that table was a table of dialogue. The whole family sat down together for meals, and the education process continued at the table,” explained Myriam Fernandez Nevado, a sociologist.
Back then, there was always mom or grandma waiting for kids when they got out of school. In contrast, teens today spend a lot of time alone — they're referred to as the "keychain generation," or what are commonly known in the West as "latchkey kids."
Don’t blame it on women joining the workforce, argued Fernandez. In rural areas, women always worked outside their home, she said, but an extended family took care of the children. New family structures and long working hours are changing the way kids are brought up. “Parents feel guilty, and they want to avoid conflict during the little time they spend with their children,” offered Sancho.
What’s more, the customary alcohol consumption of Spaniards primes parents for a permissive attitude. "Alcohol consumption is part of our culture, people drink at home, everybody drinks," explained Dr. Juan Jose Rodriguez Sendin, president of the Spanish Organization of Physicians.
Jose Lluis Matali, a psychologist from the Unity of Addictive Conducts in Adolescents at Hospital Sant Joan de Deu in Barcelona, agrees. A parent or tutor has to pick up teenagers treated for alcohol intoxication before they can be released from the hospital. Their reaction? "Parents minimize, 'banalize' or 'normalize' their kids' alcohol consumption," Matali said. "Many parents see it as a rite of passage to adulthood," he added.
"All my friends drink, so I drink too," said 17-year-old A. whose name cannot be published because she is a minor. She was hanging out in Moncloa, a Madrid neighborhood favored by teenagers, on Saturday night. She explained she drinks vodka, and it's her 19-year-old friend, Francisco Mased, who buys it for her.
When asked whether her parents knew she drank, A. said, "I think they know, but I don't go home drunk, so it's OK, they don't say anything. They were also my age once."
Mased said he used to drink every weekend, even weekdays, but now he took up soccer, and he drinks a lot less. When asked why he does botellon, his answer was similar to A.'s: "Because everybody drinks."
The binge-drinking trend is more than just a cultural overhaul. Rodriguez Sendin warns society could be losing future brain power to alcohol.
“The brain is maturing until a person turns 20. Alcohol is a harmful toxic that interferes with brain development. The brain capacity of teens who drink a lot will be much more limited when they are adults than it would have been otherwise,” he said.
Alcohol affects multiple organs in the body including the heart, digestive system and kidneys, explained Rodriguez. Alcohol abuse is also linked to risky sexual behavior and traffic accidents. “It’s the major cause of avoidable death,” he concluded.
Surprisingly, there aren't readily available figures to back up Rodriguez's claims. Very few studies have been done on a national level, partly because it's hard to get reliable data. People treated in an emergency room after a motorcycle accident or, say, a fist fight are recorded as “trauma” or “surgery” cases, even if there was alcohol involved, said Matali. At his hospital, Sant Joan de Deu, doctors did a 30-month study, from January 2007 through June 2009, about alcohol intoxication in teenagers. The emergency room saw 223 cases of alcohol intoxication during that time, while in other intoxication cases teenagers had mixed alcohol with other drugs. The average age of the patients was 16.
Awareness sessions for teens who already get drunk on occasion are effective in raising their consciousness about the consequences of binge drinking, Matali said. “We tell them, ‘You have to learn to drink’ and ‘Don’t go out with the intention of getting drunk,'” he explained. For those who show signs of alcohol dependency, Matali said he recommends abstinence.
The earlier a person starts consuming alcohol habitually, the higher their chances of becoming an alcoholic, Rodriguez alerted.
The Ministry of Health survey found on average that teens start drinking at 13-and-a-half years of age, and six out of 10 adolescents regularly drink. Almost one in four (23 percent) consumes alcohol every weekend.
Legislation prohibits alcohol sale in Spain to youths under 18. But more than 90 percent of high school-aged kids in the Ministry’s survey reported having easy access to alcohol. Shops still sell alcohol to teens, or older friends buy for the younger ones. A 2007 bill to toughen accessibility and ban advertising did not pass due to pressures by Spain’s alcohol sector, particularly the wine industry.
The physicians’ organization claims that law is essential, and Sancho asserts social action must accompany legislation. Parents and schools have to reassume their education responsibilities. Effective measures to shorten long work schedules are indispensable for work and family life reconciliation.
In the meantime, teenagers are increasingly gathering in Spanish plazas and parks to tie one on. So much for a country where people used to boast about never having gotten drunk.