It may have something to do with the economic recession, or it may not – but Europe is increasingly coming face to face with the widespread problem of excessive drinking, especially among teenagers.
A recent authoritative study in the Netherlands says that people are more likely to turn to alcohol while watching TV if they see drinking portrayed in films or advertisements. This is among the factors that have led to a call for doubling the tax on alcoholic drinks in the country.
The research, led by a team from Radboud University in the Netherlands, monitored the behaviour of 80 young people while they watched television. It found that those who saw lots of alcohol references drank twice as much as those that did not. This also led campaigners to demand more restrictions on advertising.
The research showed that those who watched movies laced with alcohol references, such as the Oscar-winning American Pie, along with alcohol ads in the breaks, drank much more during the show than the group that was shown relatively innocuous movies like 40 Days and 40 Nights, without any alcohol promotions.
Lead researcher Rutger Engels said, "Our study clearly shows that alcohol portrayal in films and advertisements not only affects people's attitudes and norms on drinking, but it might work as a cue that affects craving and subsequent drinking."
He said the findings suggested there may be an argument for restricting advertising and introducing warnings on films – particularly because these media usually present drinking as positive social ritual, while leaving out the potential harm that drinking can cause.
Alcohol advertising is currently restricted under EU rules so that companies cannot promote it using children or as an aid to social or sexual success or to help as a therapeutic aid. Also, advertising cannot encourage excess drinking. The Dutch department of health said there were no plans to extend these restrictions.
Leading the call for higher taxation are the alcohol prevention foundation Stap, criminologist Jan van Dijk and paediatrician Nico van der Lely, who say it is time for drastic measures. They say the soft approach of the past 20 years has not worked and the only option is to raise the price of alcohol.
Drink we must
Scotland, famous for its whiskey, this week moved to raise taxation on the cheaper varieties of liquor in an effort to curb drunkenness, raising a storm of protest. (See: Scotland to make boozing more expensive)
In the Netherlands too, proposals to make alcohol more expensive are running into the expected opposition. Sue Eustace of the Advertising Association told a local newspaper that the strict codes already in place provided the "correct framework" and introducing further bans would just be a "blunt" tool.
"Research shows that networks of close friends are the key influence in terms of our relationship with alcohol,'' she said.
Last December, new figures from the national statistics office CBS showed that Dutch teenagers are now actually drinking less. The number of teens who use alcohol fell from 85 per cent in 2003 to 79 per cent in 2007. However, CBS researcher Jan Latten said this was probably because rules have been enforced to prevent children under 16 from buying alcohol.