Binge drinking spreads to Italy

Italy takes steps to stop binge drinking, which is growing among Italians thanks to the influx of hard-drinking tourists.

Paolo Bona/Reuters
Young Italians drink beer at a park in Milan on August 22, 2009. Rome made it illegal to drink in the street after 9 p.m. last month.

It's 2 a.m. and the hours of sustained drinking are taking their toll. Smashed glass and plastic cups litter the streets, trash cans overflow with empty beer cans, and girls in high heels and short skirts totter unsteadily out of rowdy pubs. But this is not London or New York. It's Rome.

Italians have long been regarded as a model of Mediterranean restraint when it comes to alcohol consumption.

But all that is changing, for a complex mix of reasons. Italian parents, struggling in the country's worst recession since World War II, are working longer hours and have less time to supervise their teenagers.

The long-cherished tradition of drinking alcohol only as an accompaniment to eating has been severed, with drinking – and getting drunk – now seen as an end itself. The "rhythm of Italian life is changing," says the director of the Italian Institute for Health, Dr. Emanuele Scafato.

Beverage companies aggressively market ready-mixed drinks and "alco-pops" to teenagers, bombarding them with the message that alcohol consumption is sexy.

And Italians' attitude to alcohol has been transformed by the increasing numbers of young foreign tourists who descend on the country, particularly in the summer months. Budget flights have put Rome and other Italian cities within easy reach of young British, Irish, and other hard-drinking northern Europeans, not to mention Australians and Americans.

"We are seeing a strong Anglo-Saxon influence on the culture of drinking," says Gianluca Cecchini, the owner of Q's Bar in Trastevere, a cobbled Roman quarter of twisting alleyways and Renaissance piazzas just over the Tiber River.

"It's got much worse in the last five years. There's a lot more violence, and you see groups of 15 or 20 young teenagers drinking in the streets and causing trouble. "There are gangs with knives. It's becoming just like England," says Mr. Cecchini, standing next to a plaque behind the bar which reads, in English: "A pint a day keeps the doctor away."

Alcoholism on the rise

The statistics are alarming, prompting the Italian government to describe the problem of alcohol abuse as a national emergency.

In a report released last month, Italy's Alcoholics Anonymous said that in the under-18 age group, 42 percent of boys and 21 percent of girls binge drink (defined as heavy consumption in a short period with the goal of intoxication) on weekends.

Around 1.5 million Italians between the ages of 11 and 24 are now considered to be at risk for alcoholism. The number of diagnosed alcoholics here has tripled in the last decade to around 60,000 out of a population of 60 million.

For Italians, becoming drunk in public was once a social taboo – a cause for shame, particularly for women. But now, neighbourhood enoteca bars, where a glass of wine is often accompanied by a plate of cured meat and bits of cheese, are being crowded out by British-style pubs with names like The Drunken Ship and Sloppy Sam's.

"They are drinking a lot and they are drinking to get drunk," says Andrea Codispoti, a barman in a hole-in-the-wall pub off Rome's Piazza Campo de' Fiori, in the heart of the city's historic center. "They don't even like the taste of alcohol, but they feel that they need to get smashed to look cool in front of their friends."

Under the influence of pub crawls

Italians may be taking their cue from the organized pub crawls which have becoming increasingly popular in Rome. Each night more than half a dozen crisscross the capital, shepherding backpackers from one drinking hole to another.

"Welcome to Thirsty Thursday!" organizer Dimitri Tzonev told a 60-strong group of international 20-somethings at the start of a recent pub crawl. "This is what we do for a living, every single night of the year. Pace yourselves, guys, and hopefully everyone will make it through to the end."

For €20 (about $29), the pub crawlers are taken to The Highlander, a Scottish-themed pub where for an hour and a half they can drink as much as they like.

After that they have to buy their own drinks, but the ticket includes a 30 percent discount at subsequent bars and free entry to a nightclub.

The pub crawl – motto, "I Came, I Saw, I Crawled" – originally attracted only foreigners, but now Italians are beginning to join in and make up 5 to 10 percent of the nightly drinking expeditions.

"The Italians are drinking more because of the foreign influence," says Mr. Tzonev, a Bulgarian who has been leading pub crawls in Rome for five years. "They see the British and the Australians drinking and having fun and they want to join in."

Efforts to stop binge drinking

But as British-style binge drinking takes hold, Italy is taking steps to tackle the problem. There is a campaign by lobby groups – so far unsuccessful – to raise the legal drinking age from 16 to 18. Milan recently introduced an emergency law under which it will impose a €900 fine on the parents of underage drinkers. The first of its kind in Italy, the measure was designed to tackle an "emergency" in binge drinking, says the city's mayor, Letizia Moratti.

Rome introduced its own measures last month, making it illegal to drink in the street after 9 p.m. Anyone found swigging from a bottle of beer or spirits is subject to an on-the-spot fine of €50 (about $73).

The effects on the streets of the capital were dramatic and immediate. Normally the piazzas in Rome's nightlife hot spots are packed with youngsters sitting around fountains and on marble steps working their way through bottles of beer, wine, or liquor. But since the ban, with large numbers of police on hand to enforce the new rule, the drinking has disappeared.

As a bilingual teenager whose parents are British but who has spent his whole life in Italy, 18-year-old James Foster is uniquely placed to understand the gradual merger of drinking cultures. "I know kids who say 'I want to get slaughtered tonight.' They go out and order the strongest thing they can find, like absinthe, which let's face it is disgusting," says Mr. Foster, while sipping a beer in a city center bar.

"Being drunk is not as shameful or embarrassing as it used to be. In fact it's cool – it's almost got to the point where if you aren't drunk, you're a nobody. Italians are looking to the US and Britain, where it's the accepted thing."

He agrees that parental control is breaking down in many Italian families. "When I was 13 I had to be home at midnight. Now I see 13-year-olds who stroll home at 6 a.m. It's a very recent change but it's going to become a huge problem."

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