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Europe

Portuguese debate new laws to curb drinking

Portugal has announced plans to ban alcohol for teenagers under the age of 18 and from public places after 2.a.m. The plans, however, are meeting with increasing resentment among the population - and not just teens.

The later the evening, the more crowded it gets in Jardim de Santos, a small park down by the river on July 24th Avenue, and a hotspot for Lisbon nightlife.

Every single bench is occupied on Friday nights, even well past midnight. Throngs of people gather under the blossoming trees. It's noisy, bottles in bags and drinks in plastic cups are passed around: as usual on a Friday night, great quantities of alcohol are consumed.

With almost 13 liters of alcohol per person, the Portuguese rank near the top of the EU alcohol consumption list, surpassed only by the people of Andorra and most Eastern European nations. In hopes of lowering its countrymen's alcohol consumption, the Portuguese government has said it is planning to tighten legislation: a ban on the sale of alcohol to teenagers under the age of 18, and on drinking in public places into the wee hours of the morning.

Exasperated neighbors

"We wanted to limit the amount of time people are allowed to drink on public streets and squares," says Manuel Cardoso, deputy head of Portugal's Drugs and Addiction Authority (SICAD).

People in park in the night, drinking

Santos Park, one of Lisbon's outdoor party hotspots

The new draft law foresees banning drinking in public places after 2 a.m. Residents have been complaining about the noise levels and filthy streets; in particular, in the Bairro Alto neighborhood of the capital. Once spring has arrived in Portugal, people do in fact tend to get togther, party and drink outdoors. And it's not easy to do anything about that, either, says Cardoso.

"It's fun, you're having a good time, meeting friends," says Daniela. The 18-year-old and a group of friends cluster around a small table in Santos park, piled with plastic bags and cheap bottles of vodka. "We'll have a few more drinks here before we move on, perhaps to a bar, or a disco." Staying in one place is not cool; in Lisbon, revelers begin the evening in one of the parks or many bars, move on to a disco, and much later, toward dawn, they hit the streets again - if they're still in good shape.

No underage drinking

Meanwhile, considerable noise spills from the All Saints Bar across the street. Pedro and his buddies emerge, the 16-year-old boys are bar-hopping and ready to move on. They are not happy with the government's plans. "It's ridiculous to serve no alcohol at all to people under the age of 18," Pedro grumbles. No hard liquor is okay, he adds - but that's already forbidden to his age group. But why should teenagers aged 16 and 17 not be allowed to have a glass of beer or sangria, he asks.

The answer is simple, says Manuel Cardoso: "Because the current law doesn't seem to be able to communicate our message."

The message being, alcohol is detrimental to your health, and that includes beer and wine. That is true in particular for teenagers. Banning alcohol for people under the age of 18 is meant to get the message across and to change drinking habits that in rural areas even allow giving children soups enriched with alcohol to fortify them.

The drinking habits of Portuguese youth have taken an alarming turn. What used to be a glass of wine with a meal has turned into less frequent, but heavy binge drinking on the weekends.

Sérgio Serrano

Sergio Serrano runs the Prohibition bar, and is wary of the planned new legislation

Changing drinking habits

"If we're not allowed to serve alcohol to teenagers under the age of 18, I sure hope the same is true for supermarkets and gas stations that are also open at night," says Sergio Serrano, owner of a bar named Prohibition. Alcohol consumption is a cultural, not a penal problem, he says, arguing that Lisbon's publicans can't be the scapegoats.

Drinking habits can only change through education, Manuel Cardoso agrees, adding that bans are difficult to enforce and monitor. So Portugal's new law, scheduled to be passed within the next few months, can only be a starting point.

At 3 a.m., it's still pleasantly warm and unpleasantly noisy in Santos park. 16-year-old Pedro and his friends are long gone. Daniela and her group are still there, lounging in the grass, passing around their last bottle of vodka. All in all, about 100 people are having a good time in the park. An elderly policeman, who wished to remain anonymous, patrols the park with a colleague on his way to the Bica neighborhood that is even livelier at that time of night.

"No one believes any of this will stop just because of a new law," he says soberly, shaking his head in dismay.

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