In Spain, drinking alcohol is a ritual. People meet for a few beers, toast to celebrate and a good meal is washed down with wine. Alcohol is a drug that 93% of the population has consumed at some time in their lives. In young people, this ritual becomes a binge: nearly four out of 10 15-24 year olds, the binge drinking generation, had acute alcohol poisoning in 2020the latest available data. Despite the cultural rootedness of its consumption, medical associations increasingly warn that ‘responsible drinking’ is an oxymoron, because “the risks are only avoided by not consuming”, as stated in the latest report approved by the Public Health Commission. However, legislating on alcohol has become mission impossible in Spain. The law to prevent underage drinking has been waiting in the offices of the Socialist and Popular Party health ministers for two decades, but the text always ends up running up against other interests, especially those of the alcohol industry lobby.
“The government’s intention is to bring it out in this legislature, but so far we have not advanced any further. It is the never-ending story”, says to EL PERIÓDICO Francisco Pascualpresident of Socidrogalcohol, a scientific entity that has been trying for years to get a national law passed and making contributions to the different governments.
In September 2006, the Council of Ministers gave the go-ahead to the draft bill to prevent underage drinking, a “very serious public health problem”, in the words of the then Minister of Health, Elena Salgadowho pointed out that the average age of alcohol initiation was 13.7 years old. The regulation included limitations on sales, consumption on public roads and advertising. Just a few months later, Mariano Rajoy, then leader of the opposition, pronounced in Ciudad Real his famous “¡viva el vino!” after a fiery defense of its consumption and against an “authoritarian” government led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. The star product of the Mediterranean diet, wine, had entered into the equation in a country that is one of the world’s leading producers.. Rajoy quoted Quevedo, who wrote that wine is the best vehicle for food and the best medicine: “We need more Quevedo, more education, and less laws to bother people”. Thus began a ‘wine war’, a few months before the municipal elections, and the socialist government opted to put the draft bill in a drawer.
And as history often rhymes, when she was a PP Minister of Health, Ana Matowho put on the table a draft law to prevent underage drinking, producers and winemakers -and also the PSOE of territories such as La Rioja- again put pressure until the Popular Party put it back to sleep the sleep of the just.
When the PP returned to the helm of government after a year in office, a 12-year-old girl died after suffering an alcoholic coma at a botellón. The National Plan on Drugs insisted that the very high levels of alcohol consumption among minors were due to the “lack of risk perception and its very high degree of availability”, and a new Minister of Health, Dolors Montserratonce again promised a law on underage drinking.
Rajoy’s promise in 2002
At a congress on ‘alcohol, night and minors’ that was being held within the framework of the National Plan on Drugs in 2002, journalists and scientists heard from the mouth of the then vice-president of the Government the promise of a law that would prohibit drinking alcohol in the street, which earned him the pseudonym of ‘botellón law’. That vice-president was Mariano Rajoy.
The Economic and Social Council considered that the Law for the Prevention of Undue Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages was excessively punitive and detrimental to the producing sector, in addition to proposing that wine be excluded because it is a “natural alcoholic beverage of agricultural character and food use”. The text was also opposed by PSOE and IU, who considered it repressive, and did not even reach the Parliament. It was the first unsuccessful attempt to regulate the consumption of a substance recognized as a potent carcinogen. Shortly thereafter, the same government passed the Wine Act, which defines it as a foodstuff and is now being used by the industry to demand its exclusion from alcoholic beverages.
“Each minister who has been incorporated has wanted to bring forward the legislation, but has had pressures and has remained in a ‘we are in it’”, says Pascual, who makes his own what he himself qualifies as a catch phrase: “Politicians are sold out”.
Two decades after the first attempt, it is Minister Carolina Darias who is now faced with regulating underage drinking. On April 8, the public consultation input period ended, and since then nothing has been heard.
Legislation and lies
At the beginning of the summer, a headline spread like wildfire: the Government wanted to ban wine in the daily menus. The president of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, published a photograph on social networks with a glass and a message: “A good wine as the one that the gentlemen of the Government want to ban us.”. Health had to come out to deny it. The aim of the Cardiovascular Health Strategy was to “collaborate with catering establishments” to promote a Mediterranean diet as a model for a heart-healthy diet “without including alcohol consumption”. The mention of alcohol was eventually eliminated.
“The messages sometimes arrive distorted and the industry knows how to do this very well, because they have a very high economic and marketing capacity”, says Pascual. From Salud Sin Bulos, an initiative endorsed by most of the country’s medical associations to combat health lies on the Internet, they are working to dismantle some myths, such as that a glass of wine a day is beneficial for health. The president of Socidrogalcohol assures that the wine sector contacted them years ago to endorse this type of messages: “we cannot assert something that has no scientific evidence, when there are studies that are repeated and that dismantle it”, he says. Among the proposals they have made to Health is that of to disassociate the alcohol industry from prevention programs.because “their interest is that alcoholic beverages are sold”.
A slogan usually accompanies alcoholic beverage advertisements: “Drink in moderation, it is your responsibility”. Pascual insists on measures such as labeling, which is opposed by the same industry that promotes that slogan: “For me to be responsible for what I do, I must be informed.”. In the case of minors and adolescents, medical and scientific associations have been warning for years that the only responsible consumption is zero: it harms brain development, can cause alterations in the growth process and increase the possibility of developing abusive consumption.
The legislature has crossed the halfway point and new electoral cycles are looming that augur a Congress in permanent campaign. Meanwhile, the industry continues to win battles, such as the one that prevented in Europe from including a mention of the risks of alcohol intake in the labeling of beverages.. It remains to be seen whether it will be this Parliament that finally dusts off a long-delayed law or whether the pen of Quevedo will return: ‘A mighty gentleman is money’.