Austrian teenagers among top ‘binge drinkers’ in Europe

Austrian teenagers are prone to binge drinking - according to a European-wide study on alcohol and drug consumption among school children.

Austrian teenagers among top 'binge drinkers' in Europe
Photo: Nejmiez/Wikimedia

Across Europe, smoking and drinking among 15- and 16-year-old school students are generally showing signs of decline – except in Austria where both remain comparatively high, according to the study published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (ESPAD).

Austria exceeds the ESPAD average by 20 percentage points on alcohol use in the last 30 days, and binge drinking is also more common.

The proportion of students reporting cigarette use in the last 30 days amounts to 28 percent in Austria, compared to 21 percent for all countries.

88 percent of Austrian 15 and 16 year olds admitted to having drunk alcohol at least once. 79 percent said that cigarettes were easily obtainable, despite strict laws on tobacco use.

“Heavy episodic drinking (binge drinking) remains a concern,” the study found, with the highest numbers of teen binge drinkers recorded in Austria, Cyprus and Denmark.

21 percent of Austrian students admitted to having experimented with illegal drugs – the most common drug used was cannabis. Across Europe the figure was lower, with 18 percent of students reporting having used an illicit drug at least once in their life. Illegal drug use among teens is highest in the Czech Republic.

Vienna's Drug Policy Coordinator Michael Dressel admitted that it is worrying that Austrian school children are able to get hold of cigarettes and alcohol so easily. “There is room for improvement. But Austria – like the Scandinavian countries – does not have a prohibition policy. The aim is to raise the health literacy of young people. This is sustainable. When young people grow up in countries with strict prohibitions on alcohol, they are more likely to drink themselves unconscious,” he said. 

Austrian teenagers could blame their parents for setting a bad example. “Alcohol consumption is well integrated in Austria. There is no large group of abstainers,” addiction expert Alfred Uhl told the Kurier newspaper. However, he added that things have improved since the 1970s, with alcohol consumption falling by 20 percent and less alcohol-related road deaths and workplace accidents. 

According to the World Health Organization, 46 percent of Austrian adults smoke and alcohol consumption is higher than in most EU countries.

OECD figures suggest Austrians drink 1.1 litres more alcohol than the EU average – equivalent to 12.2 litres of alcohol per person every year. They are also the second largest consumer per capita of alcohol in the entire OECD.


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Austria tiring of being ‘ashtray of Europe’

Austria is tiring of its reputation as "the ashtray of Europe" -- at least according to the results of a nationwide petition backing a ban on smoking in cafes and restaurants.

Austria tiring of being 'ashtray of Europe'
Guests puff on cigarettes in a Vienna bar. Photo: AFP

Pressure is now mounting on Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) to drop its opposition to a referendum on the issue after the petition organised by Austria's medical association garnered 881,569 signatures.

The result, which represents 14 percent of the electorate and more than 10 percent of the population overall, is the seventh largest for a petition of its kind, according to public radio Ö1.

Austria is one of the last European countries where smoking is still permitted in bars and restaurants despite calls for bans dating back 13 years, prompting anti-smoking groups to dub it the “ashtray of Europe”.

That looked as though it would change when in 2015 the previous government — a “grand coalition” of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) and centre-right People's Party (ÖVP) — voted through a ban that was meant to take effect in May this year.

However, after elections in October 2017, the FPÖ and its leader Heinz-Christian Strache — himself a keen smoker — made dropping the ban a condition of joining a coalition with the ÖVP of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

As a result, smoking in bars and restaurants stayed legal as long as it was done in a separate area — although this rule is not always rigidly implemented.

No separate area is necessary in establishments smaller than 50 square metres (540 square feet) if the owner is happy to allow smoking on the premises.

The situation is an “aberration” which is “contrary to the trend across the rest of the world”, according to the medical association, which stresses that 13,000 people die each year in Austria from smoking-related causes.

According to Eurostat, 30 percent of Austrians over the age of 15 smoke — the third-highest proportion in the EU — and it has some of the EU's cheapest cigarettes.

'Election campaign joke' 

The impressive level of support for the anti-smoking petition has put the FPÖ in an awkward position: the party has said it is keen to promote “direct democracy” but has consistently refused to entertain a referendum on the smoking issue.

“If the call for direct democracy is more than just an election campaign joke, the government has to allow a referendum,” said new SPÖ leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner.

The FPÖ has put its own gloss on the results of the petition.

According to prominent FPÖ MP Walter Rosenkranz, the high level of participation “demonstrated a desire for more direct democracy among the population”.

At the same time, party leader Strache stressed that “more than 85 percent” of voters did not sign the petition and that it had not achieved the threshold of 900,000 beyond which the party had promised a referendum at some point 
after 2021.

However, the Austrian press largely echoed the Kronen Zeitung tabloid when it said “it will be difficult for the FPÖ to explain why they're not organising a referendum straight away”.

Several prominent ÖVP politicians have also come out in favour of a referendum, including the mayors of Graz and Salzburg.

Even though he was also part of the previous government that backed the law, Chancellor Kurz has maintained a studied silence on the issue.

Strache, who is also vice-chancellor, claims the current setup maintains “freedom of choice” and protects “the interests of non-smokers, smokers and restaurateurs”.

However, a growing number of establishments are themselves becoming smoke-free.

The country's Economic Chamber, which represents businesses, says that “not a single establishment set up this year has set aside a smoking area”.