Drinking cultures compared

During the past 12 years of living in the Alps, I've noticed that alcohol abuse is nearly as pervasive here as it is back in Newport, Rhode Island.

Although the two places are poles apart (different languages, cultures, and histories; one is land-locked and mountainous and the other is flat and by the ocean) the one thing they do share is a transient, holiday, party atmosphere, with alcohol being an intrinsic part of society.

I asked my therapist if alcohol abuse was worse in the mountains than it is in the lowlands, and she said "yes" and she attributed the problem to it being a holiday destination.

So, I took my research to the internet and found that the US scores a little worse than Switzerland in terms of the cost of alcohol abuse. According to a recently published Swiss government study, the cost to society, companies and to the economy of excessive drinking was CHF 4.2 billion ($4.75 billion) or CHF 632 (or $721) per person in 2010. Interestingly, men were responsible for much of the higher cost. A similar study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA found that excessive drinking cost the US $223.5 billion in 2006 or $746 per person (so $25 more than in Switzerland), most of which was attributable to binge drinking.

These numbers would indicate that the alcohol problem is worse in the USA than in Switzerland. How can that be? Switzerland's laws on alcohol consumption are far more relaxed than those in the USA. Could it be that when things are forbidden, they become all the more enticing? Could it be that the alcohol problem in Switzerland arises out of habit, whereas in the USA it arises out of binge drinking? 

Anyway, here are the laws compared:

  • Age limits: The legal drinking age in Switzerland is 16 for beer, wine and cider and 18 for spirits. The canton of Ticino prohibits selling and consumption of any type of alcohol by minors under the age if 19. "Mystery shopping" (test purchasing research) is conducted in our canton of Bern (regulated on a regional level).
    In the USA, the drinking age is 21 for all types of alcoholic drinks.

  • Drinking and driving: The blood alcohol limit is 0.05% and in the USA it's 0.08%.

  • Random breath testing: yes (all European countries have this except for Britain).
    Rhode Island does not allow sobriety checkpoints due to its state constitution, but some other states do.

  • Restrictions on consumption: Consumption in public places is legal in Switzerland; but not in the USA, where "open container laws" exist. But if you hide your bottle in a brown paper bag and the police can't see it to prove it, you're okay.

  • Taxation: The tax on alcohol is SFR 29 per liter of pure alcohol, SFR 5.30 for beer and there's no tax on wine. The tax is SFR 116 per litre of pure alcohol for Alcopops. The VAT is 8% on alcohol, which is markedly lower than its European counterparts.
    Taxes in the USA vary by state. In Rhode Island, it is $0.60 per gallon of wine, $3.75 per gallon of spirits, and an absurdly low $0.11 per gallon of beer.

  • Restrictions on advertising: In Switzerland, there is a ban on advertising spirits on TV and a "youth protection policy" for wine and beer. Only product information for spirits is allowed on billboards and print media and cinema. There is a ban on promotions of spirits.
    In the USA, alcohol advertisements can only be placed where 70% of the audience is over 21 years old, the legal drinking age. Advertising cannot use cartoon characters and appeal to a younger audience, nor should it promote the effects of alcohol or irresponsible drinking. Sounds very subjective to me...

  • Restrictions at sports events: In Switzerland, there is no restriction on the sponsorship of sporting events by alcohol companies. In the USA, there seems to be no laws against it. Much is left to the individual media outlets. In Switzerland, there is no restriction on the selling of alcoholic beverages at sports events. In Rhode Island, there is only beer sold at sports events.

  • Pricing policy: In Switzerland, there are no minimum prices, unlike Norway, Scotland and Sweden, where the prices are fixed by a state monopoly. There are cost-covering prices for alcoholic beverages for spirits and these are anchored in the existing statutory regulations.

  • Labeling: No health warnings or ingredients/nutrition information on a. b. are anchored in existing statutory regs. I haven't seen any health labels on bottles in the USA.

  • Selling of alcoholic beverages: In Switzerland, one needs a license to sell alcoholic beverages and one doesn't have to be a liquor shop (unlike in Rhode Island). There is a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages in gas stations along highways.  There is no regulation limiting the density of selling points. Restriction on the hours/days of sale is regulated by cantons.  In 2012, it became illegal (check) to sell alcohol after 22:00 in Switzerland.

  • Serving of alcoholic beverages: Varying by canton, there is a "syrup article" that requires bars and restaurants to price their cheapest alcoholic beverage at the same amount as up to 3 non-alcoholic beverages. There are also restrictions on opening hours and this is set on a cantonal level. And a license is required. Opening hours in the USA are set at the state level.

One study I found on the internet tried to prove that European kids had a greater problem with alcohol than American kids. It found that European kids drank more in the last 30 days than American kids did. My problem with the study is that European kids are allowed to drink, so they told the truth. The same cannot be said for their American counterparts. What American kid is going to admit to drinking when he or she knows it's illegal?

I've noticed that drinking wine is part of the tradition here in the Swiss Alps. And with that comes the toast. In the USA, everyone raises their glass and says "cheers". There's no one way to to do it. Here in Switzerland, you wait until everyone has been served a drink and then you clink glasses with everyone at the table or in the group saying "santé" (yes, I know it's French… even though we are in the German part of Switzerland, our proximity to the French speaking part means that many French words enter our vocabulary), or "Prost" (if you are from a different part of German-speaking Switzerland). It is important to look in the eye of everyone, and only once everyone has clinked glasses can can you take your first sip. I've noticed that some people don't like to toast with me if I happen to be drinking water.

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