Big-drinking Czechs bid to tackle problem of underage drinking

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People enjoy beers at an outdoor seating section of a pub in Prague

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Should parents give alcoholic drinks to their kids? A new civil society campaign in the Czech Republic says, rather uncontroversially, no. 

But they’re battling against entrenched thinking, especially in a country routinely ranked as the largest consumer of beer in Europe.

At an outdoors pub in Olomouc, in the Czech Republic’s east, the topic sparks debate. It is partly down to culture, says Katarina, a mother of two. In the regions where grapes are grown, such as southern Moravia, wine is given to young children to help with producing good blood. Or a spoon of Slivovice, a traditional plum brandy, is often given to kids when camping to help settle the stomach.

Many parents, including her own, Katarina added, want to make sure children are safe with alcohol so allow their teenage children to drink beer or wine at home in “a safe, controlled environment”.

“My opinion is that children should not be given alcohol, no matter how strong, unless they are at least teenagers,” says her husband, Ondrej. “Although there’s no need to be strict about an eighteen-year-old having a beer.”

Before launching the nechmel děti (“Don’t Hop Children”) campaign last month, the organisers commissioned a survey of more than 1,000 parents of children aged between 3-15.

Conducted by Nielsen Admosphere, a local research agency, it found that 27% of parents thought it harmless to give their children a drink with a 0.5% alcohol content, rising to 36% for parents of children aged 11–15. A majority (56%) reckoned a drink with an alcohol content of up to 0.5% wasn’t even an alcoholic beverage.

Children should not be given alcohol, no matter how strong, unless they are at least teenagers

Katarina

The goal is “enlightenment”, not “prohibition”, says the campaign organiser Petr Freimann, who also a few years ago helped launch the Dry February initiative to convince adult drinkers to lay off the beer for one month a year.

Czechs are routinely ranked as being among the biggest consumers of beer in Europe, even though consumption rates are falling somewhat. A report by the Czech Beer and Malt Association last month said that beer consumption per capita has fallen for the second year in a row to (only) 129 litres, the fifth-lowest level since its records began in 1950. By comparison, Germans drink around 99 litres per capita each year, according to the latest estimates.

Yet a study by the OECD in 2015 found that the Czech Republic had one of the worst records in Europe for underage drinking, with just over 40% of 15-year-olds admitting they drink alcohol on a regular basis. The percentage who said they had tried alcohol at least once rose from 70% in 2005 to 94% in 2015, the report found.

According to a 2017 study by four Czech scientists from Charles University and Palacký University Olomouc, 7.4% of surveyed eleven-year-olds admitted to drinking at least once a week. Of thirteen-year-olds it was 19.3%, and close to two-fifths of children aged fifteen.

The findings “indicate a high degree of liberalism of Czech society towards alcohol”, the report concluded, also adding that “it appears that alcohol consumption will remain a serious problem in Czech society”.

In recent years, many Czechs have drifted towards the growing market of so-called “non-alcoholic” or “low-alcohol” drinks, which style themselves as healthier, and less intoxicating, alternatives. Some are beer-flavoured, most are lemonades or “radlers”, a shandy of beer and lemonade.

In 2020, these drinks accounted for 7.3% of the total amount of beer produced for the domestic market, according to local media reports. The market was worth €72 million that year, up more than doubled from 2014.

However, by law “non-alcoholic” beer can contain up to 0.5% alcohol. Not all do contain alcohol, but some do. Only a few are labelled “low-alcohol”.

The campaign is unlikely to be a complete ‘game-changer’ that would make the entire younger generation avoid excessive alcohol consumption.

Petr Baďura

As well as most Czech parents not considering a drink to be alcoholic if it contains less than 0.5% alcohol, the Nielsen Admosphere found that a third of surveyed parents reckon these “non-alcoholic” drinks are healthier than sodas, like Coca-Cola or Fanta.

Birell, one of the best-selling brands and almost synonymous with low-alcohol drinks, has a gluten-free option. Most of its range is advertised as not containing preservatives, artificial colours or artificial sweeteners. Its fruity varieties have added vitamins. These low-alcohol beers are also cheaper than sodas.

Some 36% of surveyed parents admitted giving flavoured beers to their children aged 11–15, and even 11% to children aged 3–6.

But Freimann points out that a child consuming a drink with 0.5% alcohol content is worse for the body than an adult consuming a beer with 4-5% alcohol, an argument supported by experts.

The nechmel děti campaign could be an “eye-opener” for some parents who consider shandies, non-alcoholic, or flavoured beers as completely harmless for children, said Petr Baďura, assistant professor at Palacký University Olomouc’s Department of Physical Culture.

“It is certainly a step in the right direction, as it will perhaps have a preventive impact in some parts of the population,” said Baďura. “However, given the Czechs’ attitude towards alcohol, it’s unlikely to be a complete ‘game-changer’ that would make the entire younger generation avoid excessive alcohol consumption.”

Asked whether his campaign will have any success, Freimann is modestly confident. He points to our interview as an example. “If we look at media coverage,” he says, “it’s quite successful.” Indeed, the campaign has been reported on by almost all Czech newspapers.

Katarina, the mother of two, concurs. “After I learned about the nechmel děti campaign, I am more strict and explain things to my children honestly,” she said.

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