Spain eyes limits on advertising in fight against teen drinking

Authorities want new law to deal with growing problem of alcohol abuse among minors

Antonia Laborde

In 2015, 285,700 Spanish adolescents aged between 14 and 18 started drinking, a total of one in seven teens in that age group. In addition, up to 5,000 minors received emergency treatment after passing out from alcohol abuse over the same period, according to data collected by EL PAÍS. On November 1, in Madrid, one of those minors, a 12-year-old girl, died after going into a coma. Spain’s Health Ministry says it wants to broker a pact this month to see a new law passed to prevent under-age drinking – a task that has proved impossible during the last three legislatures.

Drinking in public is still widespread among young people in Spain.
Drinking in public is still widespread among young people in Spain.Luis Sevillano

Among the measures being considered are limits on alcohol advertising, as well as awareness campaigns for both children and adults about the dramatic consequences of starting to drink in adolescence.

Health Minister Dolors Montserrat says she wants to see campaigns “in the classroom,” adding that measures will not be “interventionist” or about imposing fines, but instead based on “awareness and prevention.” That said, she doesn’t rule out sanctions for parents whose children “have been caught five, or however many, times” drinking alcohol in the street by the police but who have never attended awareness courses as a result.

Consuelo Guerri of the Valencia-based Príncipe Felipe Research Center, who helped draft a law aimed at combating alcohol abuse in 2013 that was never implemented, says: “We agreed that alcohol should not be advertised within a 100-meter radius of schools,” buts adds that such measures on their own “are no use.”

The Health Ministry wants the support of the alcohol industry in drawing up new laws

Javier Aizpiri, a neuropsychiatrist based in Bilbao, also helped draft the 2013 bill. “The law was presented to Congress and the next day everybody attacked it. The law disappeared, and so did the health minister,” he says, referring to Ana Mato, who was replaced by Alfonso Alonso in November 2014. “All the preventative work that was going to be carried out was never done and no politician wanted to touch the subject of alcohol,” he adds, noting that raising taxes on alcohol “is difficult” given that it is linked to tourism and is a source of revenue. Other laws “were ignored because we wanted measures to control beer and wine and there was no way that was going to happen,” he explains.

The 2013 law was aimed at controlling the sale of alcohol, backed by a crackdown on clubs and other premises, along with limiting advertising on television and the street. “The important thing is that alcohol is not sold to minors,” Montserrat said in an interview with Spanish daily ABC on December 27.

“I would have liked it if the minister had consulted those of us who have worked for years on this topic,” says José Luis Rabadán, a medic specializing in addiction, and head of UNAD, which represents more than 260 organizations in Spain that work with drug users, but was not invited to take part in the previous draft bill.

Rabadán believes that prevention and education are the best ways to reduce alcohol abuse among young people. “Parents give their children the money they use to buy alcohol,” he points out. He adds that schools need to educate children about the benefits of not drinking, while parents should attend workshops that explain the results of drinking: “Not just the consumption of toxins, but the traffic accidents, unprotected sex, and other problems later in life.”

The average age Spaniards start drinking is 13.9 years old

“We have carried out CAT Scans on 24-year-olds that show how their brains have deteriorated to the level of somebody with Alzheimer’s, but they are unaware of the problem,” says neuropsychiatrist Aizpiri, who argues alcohol products should carry health warnings, like cigarettes.

The Health Ministry wants the support of the alcohol industry in drawing up new laws. “I feel sorry for those experts who try to blame the wine sector, which is tremendously responsible and in favor of the law,” says Bosco Torremocha, the executive director of the Spanish Federation of Spirit Drinks (FEBE).

FEBE backs a ban on alcohol advertising near schools and on television during the day. But Torremocha says people have to decide for themselves how much they want to drink. “The experts cannot blame advertising for under-age drinking. What has to happen is that the law is applied and measures taken to strengthen it,” he says.

He also rejects any comparison between tobacco and alcohol. “The risk from tobacco is from consumption. With alcohol it is abuse, which in the case of under-18s means any consumption is abuse.”

English version by Nick Lyne.

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