Mass drinking gives authorities a headache

Bernd Arnold/VISUM

Botellóns – mass open-air drinking sessions which originated in Spain – are spreading through Switzerland. After Geneva, events are planned in Bern and Zurich.

This content was published on August 21, 2008 - 08:06

But the police, who want to enforce greater control and responsibility for the mess left behind, are caught in legally uncharted waters.

On July 18 around 1,300 young people turned up unannounced at a Geneva park with vast quantities of alcohol, drank it all – peacefully – and went home.

Some politicians want to ban such get-togethers, others are calling for dialogue and tighter restrictions to prevent public drunkenness and disorder.

The Geneva botellón was organised by a student who placed a short-notice "where and when" message on the social networking website Facebook. He tried to set up another one on August 8 but the police stepped in and shut the park – to maintain public order, they said.

It is true that locals woke on July 19 to mountains of rubbish – not to mention pools of vomit and urine – but if organisers guarantee they will take care of the litter, the authorities say their hands are tied.

"We can't just ban these things – meeting your friends for a drink isn't illegal," said Sami Kanaan from the Geneva cantonal government last week.

The next Swiss botellóns are planned for Geneva on Friday, Lausanne on Saturday, with Zurich and Bern hosting the mass binge-drinking sessions the following weekend.

Such gatherings could be broken up if people complained about the noise, Kanaan said, but that wouldn't make much sense either. "It would lead to an endless game of cat and mouse between the police and revellers, who would simply move to another public place."

According to Swiss law, it is illegal to drink beer if you under 16 and spirits under 18. It is also illegal to give alcohol to people under 16.

Licence

On Tuesday the Swiss branch of the Blue Cross, an international organisation that focuses on alcohol addiction, called for the introduction of licences for botellóns.

"It would be totally pointless to ban them for they are a part of today's society," spokesman Andreas Lehner told swissinfo.

"We need to look instead at how we can stem the negative effects as much as possible. We think that a licence with conditions would get the situation under control better."

Lehner also believes that the organisers should carry the full financial costs and bear responsibility for organising measures concerning hygiene, traffic, rubbish disposal and recycling.

Kanaan said he would like to see the nomination of a botellón contact person who would be responsible for a rubbish and safety concept. But so far negotiations, which are set to continue this week, have only highlighted the authorities' indecision.

Mixed reactions

On Wednesday Lausanne authorities banned the planned gathering in the Montbenon Park, which they considered an event requiring a permit, citing the lack of guarantees given by the organisers over public health and safety.

"A thousand people drinking together – that's not exactly the same as a small group hanging around a bench," said Marc Vuilleumier from the city of Lausanne police.

But authorities in Geneva said on Wednesday that Friday's planned botellón could go ahead. They said they had met with the organisers and agreed to provide lavatories as long as the organisers took measures to avoid excessive mess. Police officers will monitor proceedings.

Roland Thür from Bern's factory inspectorate said on Tuesday that the planned botellón on parliament square was clearly a case of "mass common use" and as such would need a licence. The fact that the Bern Symphony Orchestra was planning on holding a concert there at the same time meant the application would be rejected.

In Zurich head of police Esther Maurer said she wanted to do "everything possible" to prevent the gathering at the Blatterwiese.

On Tuesday the 17-year-old organiser of the Zurich botellón said he was pulling out, apparently under pressure from his employer and his mother, but 5,300 people had already signed up on his Facebook page for the party.

For its part, the Swiss Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Problems went further and demanded the presence at botellóns of social workers, Samaritans and police officers.

Health problem

"When you put several hundred hammered people in a park, anything can happen – usually for the worse," Yves Pedrazzini, a sociologist at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, told swissinfo.

The botellón phenomenon is nothing really new, he says. It is merely the current incarnation of ancient Dionysian rites linked to the mythology of alcohol.

"It's the postmodern version of the Fête des Vignerons [a wine festival held every 25 years by Lake Geneva]," he said, adding that all traditional, cultural, sporting or indeed religious pretences had disappeared. The reasons for going to a botellón were clear: to drink – and drink a lot.

"People get straight down to business," Pedrazzini said. "We're now living in the 21st century in a society marked by consumption – and the consumption has to be quick, plentiful, cheap and fashionable."

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Botellón

A botellón is a Spanish custom that involves a large number of young people (aged 16-24) meeting at night in open spaces to drink vast amounts of alcohol and to listen to music. The drink is usually bought in supermarkets because of the high prices in bars and because the drinkers can't get into bars and clubs.

"Botellón" is an augmentative of "botella" (bottle) so the literal translation would be "big bottle".

The botellón usually lasts between two and four hours and is the first thing many people do when going out at the weekend. Afterwards people might head to local clubs. In some cities botellóns can attract more than 3,000 people every Saturday night – they are a central part of the nightlife.

On some special occasions, such as the start of spring or traditional Spanish fiestas, unusually large botellóns can take place during the day, drawing young people from several cities. Such events are often spread entirely by word of mouth, email and SMS. A botellón in Seville in 2004 drew 70,000 people.

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Alcohol addiction in Switzerland

An estimated 260,000 people aged between 15 and 75 regularly drink too much.

About 300,000 are addicted to alcohol or belong to a group of people at risk.

On average five people, most of them young, are admitted to hospital every day for treatment of alcohol-related problems.

One in six deadly road accidents is the result of drink driving.

Alcohol-related illness generates annual costs of about SFr6.5 billion, according to the health office.

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Youth drinking

The Swiss government has proposed measures as part of a national action plan to combat teen drinking. They include increasing the drinking age, making alcohol more difficult to purchase and applying higher taxes.

Unlike in many parts of North America, drinking alcohol in public in Switzerland is permitted. In the evenings, especially on weekends, major railway stations are often seen teeming with young people, drink in hand.

Switzerland is not the only European country combating the problem of binge drinking. The head of a British police association recently made remarks about his country's "binge drinking culture".

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