Germany Battles Youth Drinking Scourge

For years, Germany has been famous for its tolerant stance toward public drinking. Now many communities are finding that drunken youths are a public nuisance and a danger both to others and themselves. Although several approaches have been taken to solve the problem, few have worked.
The teenager should be home by now but, instead, he’s lying here passed out on the grass next to a pool of his own vomit. His friend says the boy is 15 — and that he actually laid off things a bit tonight. He only had a couple of beers and a few swigs from a bottle — “something sweet with vodka” — being passed around. And then he suddenly just fell down.
German municipalities are battling an epidemic of youths whose drunken rowdiness is upsetting local residents and spawning a number of tough legal countermeasures.
For Ingrid Friedrich and Dirk Geist, both public safety officials in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg, this is the first completely intoxicated teenager they will have to attend to tonight — but he certainly won’t be the last. The weather is good, it’s summer, and it’s just past 10 p.m. Hundreds of drinking youths have taken their usual places in Heidelberg’s Neckarwiese Park.
It’s Geist and Friedrich’s job to patrol the area until 2 a.m. and make sure things don’t get too far out of hand. They’ll hand out fines to people who urinate on trees or in house entryways. They’ll summon an ambulance for those who collapse, like the boy here on the grass. And they’ll call in the police if drunk people start fighting or jumping into the Neckar River.
Battling the Boozing
Scenes like this have become commonplace throughout Germany. All over the country, police, public safety officials and private citizens have been complaining about excessive drinking in public. Their complaints stem from garbage left in parks, the stench of urine and techno music blaring until late at night. But they’re also about the rioting and violence that drinking unleashes in these young people.
The state can’t make these teens grow up. But it can try to bring their drinking under control through laws and new regulations. Or it can use another strategy — offering them healthier and less disruptive leisure-time activities, such as beach volleyball instead of sunset boozing, or youth clubs instead city bus stops, where they party, make out and fight.
The past few weeks have shown that blanket bans are hard to enforce. For example, an administrative court in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg recently decided in favor of a law student from Freiburg who felt that the nighttime ban imposed early last year on alcohol consumption in that city’s old town was an unacceptable restriction on the freedom of people who don’t necessarily destroy park benches after enjoying a beer or two in the evening sun. The court’s reasoning drew parallels with how swimming bans aren’t imposed on lakes just because someone has drowned in them.
Nevertheless, Germany’s towns and states are still trying to find ways — including some that are used in the United States — to effectively prevent public beer and liquor consumption in certain squares, streets and parks. Following the ruling related to Freiburg, Heribert Rech, Baden-Württemberg’s interior minister, announced that he now wants to amend relevant police laws. “I won’t leave the towns in the lurch,” he says.
Berlin has already imposed an alcohol ban in its famous Alexanderplatz, where “Friday get-togethers” used to draw around 500 young people a week. The gatherings frightened tourists away, annoyed local residents and put a strain on the city’s garbage-disposal service, which had to cart off truckloads of bottles and cans each week after the party was over.
What particularly upsets the residents is the mountain of waste left behind by careless revelers. In 2008 alone, Berlin’s poison control hotline recorded 260 cases of small children who swallowed cigarette butts they had found in parks or playgrounds. And in Berlin’s hip, young district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, a recent citizens’ clean-up day collected 3,100 bottle caps left in grassy areas and bushes. Resentment toward young drinkers in the neighborhood has gotten so strong that some people have even thrown water balloons on them from several flights up.
Priggish Party Poopers?
City officials and residents in Hamburg are also losing patience with the level of chaos there in Europe’s most famous nightlife district, the Reeperbahn. The behavior exhibited by some drinking teens has “changed dramatically,” says Ulrich Wagner, head of the local Davidwache police station. The proportion of crimes committed under the influence of alcohol in the St. Pauli area, which encompasses the Reeperbahn, lies at 42 percent — or three times the citywide average for Hamburg. Since drunks have been known to strike passersby with bottles, the city’s senate has now banned glasses and bottles from the Reeperbahn at night.
Rainer Thomasius, a physician specializing in addiction research at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, considers it an “absolutely reasonable approach” to make the area surrounding the Reeperbahn at least partially dry. Germany makes it much too easy, he says, for minors to get drunk any time and anywhere. Thomasius also thinks that it is “utterly wrong” that a six-pack of beer sometimes costs less than €2 ($2.90). He says these give-away prices are partly responsible for the fact that more and more young people are finding wild drinking binges that ultimately bring them to his clinic.
Throughout Germany’s cities and states, there is a wide range of ideas being bandied about, but they all relate to the same thing: how to spoil the fun for these pedestrian-zone partiers. Baden-Württemberg wants to cut off their access to more supplies by forbidding gas stations and newsstands from selling alcohol between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Police there also started conducting checks last week on teenagers carrying soft drink bottles to see if they had spiked them with vodka.
The state of Lower Saxony, on the other hand, has started sending young mystery shoppers to sniff out supermarkets that sell beer and liquor to 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds. And Sabine Bätzing, the federal government’s chief anti-drug official, is using a two-pronged positive approach of using “attractive leisure-time activities and informational campaigns” to lure minors away from drinking.
Moving Targets
Wolf-Egbert Rosenzweig is the mayor of Neu Wulmstorf, a town of 20,000 just outside Hamburg. He has already tried just such a positive approach. He hired social workers to counsel teens on the streets, and he gave the local youth center more funding. But even after months of funding and counseling, no one succeeded in winning the teens’ trust. Unimpressed by the government’s efforts, the first young drinkers still turned up in the town’s marketplace in the early afternoon to get plastered on cheap beer bought at a nearby discount shop.
Still, word had already gotten out that Neu Wulmstorf was a happening place, and more teens started showing up on its streets. Pedestrians felt threatened by the young drinkers, sales at retail shops and restaurants took a nosedive, and residents of a nearby retirement home complained about garbage and dirty benches.
The town decided to take a tougher approach, but it’s been hard to implement. There simply aren’t enough police officers and public safety officials to constantly keep their eyes on what’s happening and pinpoint individual wrongdoers each time while staying within their legal boundaries.
Ultimately, after a 15-year-old girl was found unconscious and covered in vomit on the edge of the marketplace, Rosenzweig and the town council threw all caution to the wind — and imposed an alcohol ban. Now drinking is only allowed in the town’s marketplace under one set of circumstances — when newlywed couples want to have a champagne toast after their marriage ceremony.
In the beginning, local teens demonstrated against the ban and demanded that it be at least partly lifted. But Rosenzweig didn’t budge.
The teens eventually gave up their protests, but the mayor still hasn’t gotten rid of the real problem. The owner of a local gas station recently complained to him that the drunken youths were back, only this time they were on his property.
Source: Spiegel Online International 3rd August 2009

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