"We've got a 39 by Canal Metro Station. Male aged about 18, vomiting on the steps. Go immediately," crackled the voice over the radio of Madrid's emergency services on a recent Saturday night. Ten minutes later another "39" call, or alcohol-intoxication case, came in from another part of the city and it was not yet 9 p.m. As the evening progressed, there were half a dozen drink-related traffic accidents and a booze-fueled stabbing. And through a bitterly cold night, hardy groups of teenagers could still be seen enjoying botellones: a popular pastime which has them huddling in darkened squares around communal concoctions of spirits and mixers, blended to induce oblivion as quickly and cheaply as possible. A group of five off the Plaza Dos de Mayo only two had reached the legal drinking age of 18 was guzzling calimocho, a popular brew of red wine and cola, in large plastic cups.
"One drink in a bar costs €3," said Elisa, 17. "I can drink this all night for the same amount." Her friends say they do it every weekend. Down the road at the El Rey Lagarto bar, four 19-year-old students were spending a little more to suck down beers indoors. Asked how they spent their weekends, they replied in unison, "Drinking!" By 11:30 p.m. Pablo, 28, a bartender at nearby retro joint Tupperware, had to open a second room upstairs to handle the crowd. "We're in Spain," he shrugs. "Everyone gets drunk."
That may be. But a growing share of "everyone" these days is a horde of tipplers so young you might expect them to be having milk and cookies instead. Between 2002 and 2004, the percentage of 14- to 18-year-olds in Spain who said they had been drunk in the last month jumped from 19% to 35%; 82% say they drink regularly; 27% say they're drunk every 10 days. And it's not only Spain where teens are boozing. All over Europe in traditional drink-to-get-drunk cultures like Britain and Scandinavia, and in southern countries such as Italy and Portugal where public drunkenness has traditionally been frowned upon young people, girls as well as boys, are hitting the bottle harder than their parents and starting younger. Just as Britain introduces new laws to encourage its people to drink more gently, like Continentals, the children of the supposed role models are vying with other young Europeans to become lager louts.
Europe is already the heaviest-imbibing region in the world, with alcohol consumption per head over twice the world average 11 L of pure alcohol per year. That number has been gradually declining since the mid-1970s, as southern countries have slowly lost the habit of drinking throughout the day. But the younger generation is yanking it up again. The age people start drinking is getting lower 11.8 years for Europeans who are now students, compared to 15 for those now aged 40 to 54. Across the European Union, 13% of 15- to 16-year-olds have been drunk more than 20 times in their life, and 18% have "binged" drunk the equivalent of a bottle of wine in one sitting three or more times in the last month. Irish Minister of State Noel Ahern, speaking about his own country, captures the European trend: "People used to drink for enjoyment, but now many young people are drinking to get plastered."
Kids may think binge drinking is cool, but the hangover in terms of health problems, crime and accidents causing death or disability is huge. Spanish Health Minister Elena Salgado says that the number of hospitalizations from alcohol abuse has doubled in a decade. Martin Plant, an alcohol researcher at the University of the West of England, says that "people in their 20s are now dying of alcohol-related liver disease, and even teenagers are developing it." Alcohol is estimated to be a factor in 20-30% of British accidents and 47% of violent crimes. In Germany, young people are drinking almost 30% more alcohol than four years ago. Emergency-room visits caused by "coma drinking" rose 26% between 2000 and 2002; half the patients were female. In Poland, where the number of adolescents who drink jumped 40% between 1995 and 2003, 20% of 17-year-old boys say they got in a booze-fueled fight in the last year. Eight percent of Swedish 15- to 16-year-old girls say drink led to unplanned sex, while 12% say it made them forget to use a condom.
That gloomy parade didn't trouble the teens around the Continent recently quizzed by Time about their drinking habits. "I see nothing wrong with drinking," says Monika, 15, sitting at the Bolek bar, in Warsaw's Pola Mokotowskie park. "How can you go to a disco and not drink? Or sit and talk with your friends and what, drink Coke? Everyone would think you are a loser or a weirdo." "It's fun and it's cheap," says Alek Stepien, 17, after buying a bottle of vodka in central Warsaw. "This costs the same as going to the movies, and it's fun for the whole night." Pieri, 14, goes to the Campo dei Fiori in central Rome to knock back a few with the crowds there. "They see others doing it, and they do it too," he says.
While Italy has cut its overall consumption of alcohol in half in the past 25 years, its young people are moving in the other direction. Italians have the lowest start-drinking age in Europe: 12.2 years compared to a European average of 14.6. The number of booze-quaffing Italian boys aged 14 to 17 rose 31% between 1995 and 2000; the number of girls more than doubled. There's no minimum age to buy liquor in stores, and 16 is the age for getting served in bars, where a popular drink for novices is a shot of rum followed by pear juice half the price of an "alcopop," one of the sugary spirit-based drinks targeted at kids. Asked whether they've ever been requested to show ID when out drinking, a group of Roman teenagers erupts in laughter. "Nobody has ever asked me for anything," says Maria Teresa, 15.