The new federal alcohol law wants to ban happy hours in Swiss bars on Fridays and Saturdays – a move that has come in for strong criticism.
While alcohol prevention experts say the measure does not go far enough in these times of increasing alcohol consumption among the young, bar and restaurant owners say they are being targeted unfairly.
Happy hour, ladies’ night or two-for-one offers – all enticing revellers to drink alcohol at a reduced price – are now commonplace, especially in Switzerland’s larger cities.
These promotions apply to beer and wine only as there have been limits on happy hours for spirits since the 1980s.
The government’s project for a total revision of the Alcohol Law, which is under consultation until October 2010, wants to outlaw happy hours completely on Fridays and Saturdays between 9pm and 9am of the next day.
According to a government report on the issue, the aim is “to reduce the targeted encouragement of alcohol consumption at weekends”.
A Lausanne University Hospital study recently showed a trend towards big drinking at the weekends among 19 year olds, with average consumption rising from 0.66 drinks during the week (one decilitre of wine, 2.5 dl of beer or 2.5 centilitres of spirits) to 4.7 at the weekend.
But the revision does not go far enough for Addiction Info Switzerland, which wants a blanket ban on happy hours.
“The compromise put forward by the government is too minimalist to be accepted,” said director Michel Graf.
“Of course, consumption peaks are on Friday and Saturday evenings. But in past years, weekends have become extended to Thursdays, for instance,” he added.
“Furthermore, it’s still possible to organise happy hours before 9pm and we fear that these promotions will continue to cause damage.”
The federation of hoteliers and restaurateurs, Gastrosuisse, doesn’t agree. The revision would lead to a “disproportional limitation of the freedom of clients, the industry and the trade”, it said in a statement.
It would also miss its target. “Excessive alcohol consumption among young people, which is causing great worry to society, has little to do with the hotel and restaurant sector,” Gastrosuisse said, adding that this normally took place outside.
“You just need to go out and see for yourself that young people’s consumption of alcohol is not the same as ten years’ ago,” noted Laurent Terlinchamp, president of the canton Geneva section of Gastrosuisse.
“Most youths don’t drink to have fun but drink themselves into an almost comatose state, and this rarely happens in bars and restaurants.”
Terlinchamp believes the law’s proposal is too simplistic and that the catering industry is being made a scapegoat again.
“If the idea behind the bill is that price induces part of the population to drink more, then you need to target the source. Alcohol can be bought in any supermarket at a price well below anything in a bar or restaurant.”
Graf says it is true that young people, especially 16-20 year olds, have changed where they are having their nights out.
“On the other hand, you can’t deny that restaurants and bars are gaining markedly in attractiveness thanks to these promotional evenings,” he pointed out.
But he does agree that the problem needs to be tackled at its source. “We have made it clear that rules for promotional offers should also be applied to shops. Nowadays special offers mean that you can find alcoholic drinks at really derisory prices.”
In Switzerland, a 0.7 litre bottle of vodka can be bought for around SFr10 ($9.70), of which almost SFr9 covers the tax on distilled drinks and VAT. The contents and bottle cost just over SFr1.
The current law forbids sales of spirits at below-cost prices. But in its revision, the government has decided against minimum prices or an incentive tax system. Nor did it want to increase the tax on spirits, for legal and competition reasons.
So the situation will continue virtually unchanged. “The only small measure has been to ban happy hours on Fridays and Saturdays,” said Graf.
“Apparently, the law should define better what it means to sell an alcoholic drink at a [below-cost] price and extend the ban to all types of alcohol, not just spirits. However, we have doubts over whether this will be effective. Personally, I don’t know of any importer or shop that would sell its products without earning something.”
Daniele Mariani, swissinfo.ch (Translated from Italian by Isobel Leybold-Johnson)
On average, per capita consumption was as follows in 2009: 38.6 litres of wine, 58 litres beer, 4 litres of spirits and 1.6 litres of cider.
In the past 20 years, there has been a fall, particularly for wine consumption (49.4 l in 1990) and beer (69.8 l). The drop was less marked for spirits (4.5 l in 1990).
For hard liquors the elimination of import barriers has caused a huge structural transformation. The consumption of traditional Swiss spirits has fallen, whereas imports, such as whisky and vodka, have risen.
Although alcohol consumption levels have dropped over the last two decades, the proportion of young people who said they have been drunk at least twice in their lives is rising. In 1986 17.4% of 15 year old boys said yes, compared with 11.9% girls. In 2002 it was 32.1% for boys and 23.3% for girls. In 2006 there was a drop (28.1% and 19%).
Of particular concern is binge drinking – drinking as much alcohol as quickly as possible. A 2007 survey found 14% boys and 1.8% girls had been binge drinking.
In 2007 around 1,700 adolescents were admitted to hospital with alcoholic poisoning. There was a rise of 16% between 2005 and 2007, particularly among girls.
In theory, selling wine and bear to people under 16 is banned by law. Hard liquors are banned for those under 18 years old.