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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.

"All my friends drink, so I drink too," said 17-year-old A. whose name cannot be published because she is a minor. She was hanging out in Moncloa, a Madrid neighborhood favored by teenagers, on Saturday night. She explained she drinks vodka, and it's her 19-year-old friend, Francisco Mased, who buys it for her.

When asked whether her parents knew she drank, A. said, "I think they know, but I don't go home drunk, so it's OK, they don't say anything. They were also my age once."

Mased said he used to drink every weekend, even weekdays, but now he took up soccer, and he drinks a lot less. When asked why he does botellon, his answer was similar to A.'s: "Because everybody drinks."

The binge-drinking trend is more than just a cultural overhaul. Rodriguez Sendin warns society could be losing future brain power to alcohol.

“The brain is maturing until a person turns 20. Alcohol is a harmful toxic that interferes with brain development. The brain capacity of teens who drink a lot will be much more limited when they are adults than it would have been otherwise,” he said.

Alcohol affects multiple organs in the body including the heart, digestive system and kidneys, explained Rodriguez. Alcohol abuse is also linked to risky sexual behavior and traffic accidents. “It’s the major cause of avoidable death,” he concluded.

Surprisingly, there aren't readily available figures to back up Rodriguez's claims. Very few studies have been done on a national level, partly because it's hard to get reliable data. People treated in an emergency room after a motorcycle accident or, say, a fist fight are recorded as “trauma” or “surgery” cases, even if there was alcohol involved, said Matali. At his hospital, Sant Joan de Deu, doctors did a 30-month study, from January 2007 through June 2009, about alcohol intoxication in teenagers. The emergency room saw 223 cases of alcohol intoxication during that time, while in other intoxication cases teenagers had mixed alcohol with other drugs. The average age of the patients was 16.

Awareness sessions for teens who already get drunk on occasion are effective in raising their consciousness about the consequences of binge drinking, Matali said. “We tell them, ‘You have to learn to drink’ and ‘Don’t go out with the intention of getting drunk,'” he explained. For those who show signs of alcohol dependency, Matali said he recommends abstinence.

The earlier a person starts consuming alcohol habitually, the higher their chances of becoming an alcoholic, Rodriguez alerted.

The Ministry of Health survey found on average that teens start drinking at 13-and-a-half years of age, and six out of 10 adolescents regularly drink. Almost one in four (23 percent) consumes alcohol every weekend.

Legislation prohibits alcohol sale in Spain to youths under 18. But more than 90 percent of high school-aged kids in the Ministry’s survey reported having easy access to alcohol. Shops still sell alcohol to teens, or older friends buy for the younger ones. A 2007 bill to toughen accessibility and ban advertising did not pass due to pressures by Spain’s alcohol sector, particularly the wine industry.

The physicians’ organization claims that law is essential, and Sancho asserts social action must accompany legislation. Parents and schools have to reassume their education responsibilities. Effective measures to shorten long work schedules are indispensable for work and family life reconciliation.

In the meantime, teenagers are increasingly gathering in Spanish plazas and parks to tie one on. So much for a country where people used to boast about never having gotten drunk.