The traditional German pastimes of boozing and smoking are no longer just the preserve of the working man. Instead they have become the pleasure of an alarming percentage of the nation's youth.
Young smokers are a common sight in Germany
When it comes to alcohol and tobacco consumption, Germany is ailing. With 16.7 million smokers and 1.6 million alcoholics, smoking and drinking have become so embedded in the fabric of society that it is hard to conceive of how younger generations can avoid falling prey to their addictive clutch. Truth is, tens of thousands cannot.
The staggering climb in both alcohol and tobacco use amongst youth groups was overlooked for too long, and although there are now some measures in place to both correct the damage already done and to prevent its continuation, there is a long way to go in protecting children from these essentially adult vices.
Over the past ten years, tobacco consumption among 12-15 year-olds has almost doubled, with some 21 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys in the age group smoking regularly. For 16-19 year-olds, the figure is 45 percent. They're alarming statistics, not least because smoking in Germany is not actually legal until the age of 16.
But the country is a smokers' paradise, with cheap cigarettes which kids can buy from machines on street corners and very few restrictions as to where it is or is not acceptable to light up. In fact, the state of Berlin broke new ground this year in implementing a ban on smoking in its schools. It's a move which other states are likely to follow, but for the time being children over the age of 16 can smoke in designated areas on school premises provided they present a letter of consent from their parents.
The biggest question is, if smoking is no more socially acceptable now than it was ten years ago -- which it is not -- why the massive rise? Marita Völker-Albert, Press Officer for the Federal Centre for Health Education (BzGA) said the reasons are manifold. "It's different for boys and girls. Boys see it as a way of being cool, it makes them feel older and more masculine, whereas girls tend to succumb to peer-pressure and use smoking as a way of staying thin," Völker-Albert told DW-WORLD.
Jörg Richert, Managing Director of KARUNA, an organization which helps children and young people with potential or existing addiction problems, believes there are more critical factors at play. "Social pressures created by the continual drop in living standards in Germany lead to children and young adults not receiving the attention they need. When kids feel their parents are neglecting them, they try to get their attention by taking up smoking or drinking," Richert told DW-WORLD.
But he also cites another important issue as the desire of children to grow up against the backdrop of adults trying to stay young. "It is much more difficult for kids to become adults because we wear the same clothes as them, we listen to the same music, go to the same concerts - in short, we steal their identity," Richert said.
So much for the reasons behind the trend, but what of the solutions? Völker-Albert believes it is crucial to get the young smokers and drinkers to discuss the potential dangers of what they are doing to their bodies. "Until they start talking to each other, there can be no critical reflection," she said. Amongst others, the BzGa already runs a campaign of sending young people to educate their contemporaries on Germany's beaches.
Nipping danger in the bud
Richert welcomes such measures. As far as he is concerned, the only real way to the heart of the matter is to intervene in a preventative role at a very early stage, not least because of the snowball effect of early tobacco addiction. "We now know that people who start smoking at an early age are much more likely to move on to alcohol or other addictive substances," Richert said.
Youngsters to talk to their contempoaries on German beaches
And therein lies another problem. Although the consumption of wine and beer among youth groups has tailed off over the past years, the emergence of alcopops has had a truly explosive impact on child and youth drinking habits. Statistics from the BzGA show that in 2003 almost 50 percent of young people between the ages of 14-17 were drinking alcopops at least once a month -- six times more than in 1998.
"Alcopops even appeal to very young teenagers. Girls used to go out and drink coke, now they drink alcopops instead, but they don't notice the alcohol. Young people don't actually like alcohol, but they are seduced into liking it," Völker-Albert said.
The crux of the matter
Last month the government introduced sweeping legislation to put up the tax on these liquor-laced, sickly sweet sodas, increasing the price of a bottle by around € 0.80 ($0.96), but whether it will actually have the desired effect remains to be seen. "The fact that the prices have gone up won't change anything, except that I won't buy it myself, I'll let other people buy them for me," 16-year-old Marietta told DW-WORLD.
Youths drinking alcopops
But the alcohol issue does not stand and fall with alcoholic soda. Although he welcomes the price hike, Jörg Richert believes the whole issue detracts from the real and much more existential core of the problem, which he sees as inextricably linked to declining social standards in Germany, "The discussion surrounding alcopops is a distraction. Politicians should be looking at the employment market. From January onwards, there will be 500,000 more children living from welfare benefit and the consequence will be the exorbitant increase in drug use," he said.
It's a sombre prediction, but Richert claims there is an undeniable connection between poverty and drinking, smoking and drugs. And if he is right, the Federal Centre for Health Education is going to have its work cut out in making young people communicate in much louder and clearer voices.