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Binge drinking among Spanish teens on the rise

In a troubled society, traditions make it easy to look the other way.

Teenagers drink during a "macrobotellon" (drinking session) in Almeria, southern Spain, in 2006. Binge drinking among teens is on the rise in Spain, according to new health ministry numbers. (Reuters)

MADRID, Spain — Friday night in a Madrid square. Dozens of adolescents hanging out. Two-liter soda bottles strewn at their feet, along with colorful gin and rum bottles. Teens mix their own drinks for hours, to the indifference of passersby.

While Spaniards are known for their social drinking, even during their teens, this scene of excess is a relatively new one. Spanish adolescents have taken to binge drinking.

A recent Ministry of Health survey revealed that while one in four teenagers drank to get drunk 10 years ago, a full 50 percent of them do so now.

“Unfortunately, Spanish teens have copied the Anglo-Saxon model. In our Mediterranean culture, we usually consume fermented drinks such as wine and beer with less alcohol than distilled spirits, and we drink with our meals,” said Jose Luis Sancho, a psychologist and coordinator of minors in Madrid for Proyecto Hombre, an NGO that helps people with addictions.

“Botellon,” literally “big bottle” in Spanish, is the local lingo for the BYOB (bring your own booze) phenomenon of young people meeting in outdoor public places with the purpose of consuming alcohol. Some gatherings consist of small groups of friends. Others are massive, attended by the thousands thanks to texting or social networks like Facebook. While these "macrobotellones" are organized by college students, high schoolers participate too.

Moderate consumption has always been socially acceptable in Spain. Only a generation ago, grade-school kids were introduced to alcohol at home — they were served shandy beer by their parents at meals or a drop of sparkling wine over the Christmas holidays.

“We coexisted with alcohol, there was a wine bottle at the table every day. But that table was a table of dialogue. The whole family sat down together for meals, and the education process continued at the table,” explained Myriam Fernandez Nevado, a sociologist.

Back then, there was always mom or grandma waiting for kids when they got out of school. In contrast, teens today spend a lot of time alone — they're referred to as the "keychain generation," or what are commonly known in the West as "latchkey kids."

Don’t blame it on women joining the workforce, argued Fernandez. In rural areas, women always worked outside their home, she said, but an extended family took care of the children. New family structures and long working hours are changing the way kids are brought up. “Parents feel guilty, and they want to avoid conflict during the little time they spend with their children,” offered Sancho.

What’s more, the customary alcohol consumption of Spaniards primes parents for a permissive attitude. "Alcohol consumption is part of our culture, people drink at home, everybody drinks," explained Dr. Juan Jose Rodriguez Sendin, president of the Spanish Organization of Physicians.

Jose Lluis Matali, a psychologist from the Unity of Addictive Conducts in Adolescents at Hospital Sant Joan de Deu in Barcelona, agrees. A parent or tutor has to pick up teenagers treated for alcohol intoxication before they can be released from the hospital. Their reaction? "Parents minimize, 'banalize' or 'normalize' their kids' alcohol consumption," Matali said. "Many parents see it as a rite of passage to adulthood," he added.