Drinking, European Style
I had the wonderful luck to spend six weeks working in Madrid this summer, and while I learned a great deal about the Spanish culture, I also gained some valuable insights about America. All of my Spanish friends and coworkers had warned me specifically not to run in Pamplona. They reminded me that every year one or two Americans are killed and countless others are maimed, because they abuse alcohol and then take deadly risks.
At first it seems silly that the Spanish were trying to tell me to be cautious with alcohol—after all, it is customary on weekends to have beer in the afternoon, wine with dinner, drinks afterwards, and then to stay out all night drinking until six a.m. However, the Spanish, like other Europeans, can handle their drinking much better than Americans because they take a much more sensible attitude toward it.
In Spain, alcohol is as much a part of the culture as it is in the United States, but Spanish youths know better than Americans how to regulate themselves. To drink beer at night is considered almost unmanly—rum and scotch cocktails are the only things anyone drinks at the bar and disco. And yet people stay within their limits so nobody ends up passed out or vomiting in the gutter.
Aside from preventing young people from learning to drink responsibly, American liquor laws have potentially deadly consequences. The death of one American teen could have been prevented if the underage drinking laws hadn’t prevented his friends from calling the proper medical help when he needed it. According to a story in the New York Times earlier this month, a high school beer party in Harrison, New York resulted in the death of 17-year-old Rob Viscome, partially because of draconian drinking laws. After a 16-year-old punched him and his head hit the stone patio, Viscome’s friends refused to call 911 because they feared punishment. By the time Viscome made it to the hospital, it was too late to save him.
In Spain, alcohol is treated in a much more sensible manner. Sort of like riding a bicycle, learning to drink alcohol is done at an early age, before adolescents develop the desire to rebel and deceive. Children grow up watching their parents drink wine at the dinner table and beer in front of the television, so they are exposed to responsible drinkers from a very early age. In Spain, singing and dancing take the place of keg stands and beer pong.
By the time teenagers begin to drink and go out at night (around age 15), they have developed an understanding of the power and danger of alcohol. They do not revere it as a wonderful substance that can turn sad times into happy times—rather, they see it as an accessory to food, an object that augments good times but doesn’t create them.
America’s attitude towards drinking and teaching children to drink—one that leads teachers and parents to preach abstinence and children to pay their local winos to buy them bottles of booze at the liquor store—is completely backwards. Parents are conditioned to fear alcohol among their children, and children are conditioned to rebel by drinking behind closed doors because our laws forbid them from doing otherwise.
In Spain, I went out at night with 3 different age groups of young people—18, 20, and 24—and I never once saw a person sick or passed out from drinking. This is in stark contrast to a night at an American university, where heavy drinking is commonplace.
My time in Spain has convinced me that a change in the American drinking laws would bring about a decline in binge drinking and encourage a more responsible approach to alcohol. Although it would lead more young people to drink at an early age, changing the laws is the only solution to the problem. Rob Viscome would still be alive if he and his buddies had been drinking at a Spanish club, where people do not get out of control and into fights. Hugo would not have risked life and limb running drunkenly from 1,200-pound bulls. Countless other teens would have avoided run-ins with the law and damage to their health if they could drink in public. As the Spaniards know well, a lot of moderate drinking is healthier than any heavy boozing.
Nicholas F. B. Smyth ’05, a Crimson editor, is a government concentrator in Dunster House.