Amendment could introduce tougher fine for sale of alcohol to minors

The World Health Organisation recently released the results of a study revealing the consumption of alcohol among under-aged youths in the Czech Republic was all too commonplace. According to the survey, Czech teenagers now rank among the heaviest "teen drinkers" in Europe. 1 out of 3 Czech fifteen-year-olds consumes alcohol at least once a week, and even younger teens have taken to drinking on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, given the increase in under-aged drinking, many health officials as well as lawmakers, say the situation must be changed.

Going to pubs, for Czech teens, is nothing all that unusual and it is not really uncommon to spot small groups of sixteen-year-olds heading for "shadier" drinking establishments at the end of the "school day". Most admit to rarely being carded and that, say specialists, is the crux of the problem: too many establishments are all too willing to serve beer or even spirits to minors. But that could soon change: some lawmakers, led by Civic Democrat MP Boris Stastny, are pushing for tougher sanctions against establishments caught selling alcohol to those under eighteen. A little earlier I spoke to the MP by phone:

"We've been looking into an amendment on tobacco and alcohol legislation together with a special work group at the health ministry, and one of the changes we've been following is the idea of greater sanctions. It concerns both alcohol and tobacco products. Sanctions for their sale to minors currently involve fines of up to 50,000 crowns but the full fine is rarely handed down. Fines can be as low as 1,000 crowns. That means that some establishments don't really worry about breaking the law. In our proposal, we are aiming for a stiffer penalty of 500,000 crowns for establishments. We want the amount of the fine to be set."

Such a large fine, says Boris Statsny, would make anyone think twice about serving minors, and in his view would help bring down the numbers of teens now abusing alcohol on a fairly regular basis. But not everyone agrees tougher sanctions are the right step. Ivan Douda is a psychologist and supervisor at Prague's Drop-In Centre, which deals with substance abuse:

"I think this initiative is well-intended but I have to say I am sceptical that the benefits will be overwhelmingly positive. I worry that a bill introducing very high fines could be abused and that pubs or bars could themselves be subject to blackmail. My feeling is that such stiff fines should really be applied only in cases where establishments have repeatedly flaunted the law."

And says Ivan Douda, there is also the risk that if sanctions prove too tough, this could have an inadvertent effect:

"If something is too available it isn't good, but too many sanctions can lead young people to feel even more inclined to try 'forbidden fruit'."

The amendment is likely to be presented for debate in the lower house next month and of course nothing is set in stone yet.