Czechs top European ladder in underage drinking

Photo: Kristýna Maková

The Czech Republic currently has the worst record in Europe in underage drinking. In the past twenty years the number of teenagers who drink alcohol has doubled and according to an OECD report over 40 percent of 15-year-olds admitted to drinking on a regular basis. So what is driving teenagers to drink in such high numbers and why has nothing been done to curb the problem – those are questions I put to the head of the government’s National Anti-Drug Agency Jindřich Vobořil.

Jindřich Vobořil, photo: archive of Czech Government
“We now have a very good situation with illegal drugs, but a very bad situation with legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. Especially young people under 16 are gold medalists in drinking alcohol, not only drinking but binge-drinking which I find most serious.”

What is behind this? Why has the situation worsened so much in the past 20 years?

“Well I can only speculate, because we do not have studies to indicate why this is happening. But in my opinion one of the reasons is that in the past we really concentrated on fighting illicit drugs, which worked, but we did very little about national policies on alcohol and tobacco. There was no national strategy, no action plans, nothing done, no money allocated for anything. So there was very little prevention, very little public awareness and very little done in controlling the implementation of laws –such as that forbidding the sale of alcohol to minors. So it slowly it all went very loose. The only control bodies were the police who tried to curb the trend, but no one else took any action.”

So who is to blame – is it parents, schools, public tolerance of underage drinking?

“I think it is a number of things, as I said politicians were very busy with the economic transformation and issues such as drugs and alcohol were not given great attention. Illicit drugs were taken more seriously and there were influential NGOs which pushed for a national strategy and new laws but as regards alcohol the only voices you heard were from the industries –the tobacco and alcohol industries are very vocal in this country so the atmosphere became extremely liberal towards underage drinking.”

But these children have parents. Surely parents can see that there is a problem?

“I often receive e-mails from people saying – Why do you bother? Didn’t you drink when you were a teenager?”

“Often they don’t and I have received e-mails from people saying – Why do you bother? Didn’t you drink when you were a teenager? Why are you bothering us? People get angry with me when I say -listen, we have a problem, we should do something, we should be a little bit stricter and more conservative about it and I have e-mails from people from all over the country disagreeing with me. So it is the atmosphere in the society which leads to this and even the institutions that had the authority –with the exception of the police – did nothing about it.”

So there is an unhealthy tolerance of alcohol in this country –is that what you are saying?

“Yes, tolerance went to the extreme. People don’t realize that it is actually a silent epidemic which is spreading. They do not believe it because the previous regime would use numbers and statistics to lie to people, so today people are very skeptical about any statistics or warnings. So they have no idea that this is a serious epidemic that can have serious consequences.”

Have there not been any awareness campaigns in schools or anything like that?

“Not much, it has only started happening lately. This government just approved an action plan regarding tobacco and alcohol abuse which would target different groups of the population and launch awareness campaigns –but again with people very skeptical towards campaigns there is now a big debate surrounding this inside the government. But I believe we are in a different situation, that a lot of people heard my voice and the voices of experts to whom this is a matter of concern and I believe we can start changing it.”

October saw the launch of a campaign against underage drinking –what does it entail – I understand there are inspectors going to restaurants and pubs…?

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“Yes, that’s just one stone of the mosaic. We said this operation was going to be preventative and before it was launched we announced it in the media – we said we are going to come this weekend and go through all the discos, clubs and restaurants to check up on whether alcohol is not being sold to minors and we will be specially interested in the under 16 age group. It will be a joint effort by a group of institutions, not just the police who are coordinating it but inspectors, hygiene officers, tax officers and so on and if we see a problem then there will be a deeper control, especially if we find underage drunk people in such places we will take a closer look at how they do business –because the people were warned and if we still come across problems then the consequences can be serious.”

We have heard for years that many salespeople do not have a problem selling alcohol to minors. Are the fines not high enough or are they just getting away with it?

“Yes, what we are saying is that the process is not set right. The police officers have to prove that a concrete person sold alcohol to a minor, which is very difficult because the teenager would be in coalition with the waiter and often it is nearly-impossible to prove such a thing. And when you can prove it, they get a fine of some 3,000 crowns – the equivalent of 100 euros – which is very low. So we are saying that they need to change who is going to be fined and it should be the owner or the service provider. And the control body should be able to take preventive measures, such as to say –this club will be closed immediately or even have its license taken away until they can prove they will effect the necessary changes and then they can continue with their business. And the police should be able to act not just when they can prove that someone sold alcohol to a teen but when there is a drunk underage person in the place. Because there are cases when the police enter a restaurant or pub and there are ten underage people obviously drunk and the waiters say – we didn’t sell it to them, they already came here drunk. But under Czech law they have a duty to escort drunk people out of a pub or restaurant- so why tolerate underage drunks? These places are breaking the law and they should be closed until they change their practice – maybe fire some of the waiters or whatever is needed and continue with the business better.”

“Tolerance went to the extreme. People don’t realize that it is actually a silent epidemic which is spreading.”

The Czech Republic is criticized by international organizations for this state affair. Is there now enough political will to change things and what is essential for such a change to be brought about?

“I cannot say whether there is enough political will, but I am directly accountable to the prime minister, we speak about it on a regular basis and he is dedicated to introducing these changes. I think that most cabinet ministers feel that something needs to change but I keep saying that it cannot just be written on a piece of paper –even if it is a national strategy – it has to be defined by money.”

So do you work with schools- do you have the money for campaigns?

“That’s our main topic of debate now –will be get enough money from the budget to change the situation. Will we be able to give money to schools and services working with young people etc. and support the control institutions such as the police for them to do more and to be persistent in their efforts. For example Germany introduced a ten-year-campaign against underage drinking ten years ago and you can now see changes. Germany had a bigger problem with underage drinking and binge drinking than the Czech Republic ten years ago and now things have changed –it is the Czech Republic which has the bigger problem.”

So will you have enough money to tackle the problem?

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“I hope so, but it is a fight of course, because there are so many needs out there and prevention does not show an immediate outcome in economic terms. So at a time of very pragmatic economic politics I have to stick to very economic arguments how much the society loses if we do not do anything –but opposite this you have the industries arguing that if you introduce too many restrictions you will ruin the businesses and collect less taxes –so it is not easy. If we look at other countries we find that we allocate 1.0 percent less than most countries in Europe including Croatia and countries with a similar economy. But we know that if we want to make headway certain rules and certain laws have to change. For instance alcohol is extremely cheap – as is tobacco, the price of tobacco is rising but alcohol is extremely cheap and the WHO says that price-making is one of the biggest instruments in putting underage people off drinking and smoking. So availability is another factor we must consider. These are all arguments that have to be put on the table and we have to discuss how to do it so as not to ruin the industries and at the same time to do something to make these legal drugs less available for young people and for their pockets.”