Italy Starts Cracking Down on Underage Drinking

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Italian teenagers drinking outdoors

Roman pub manager Leonardo Leuci has noticed an increasingly popular request from young people who step up to the bar to order a drink: "Make me something strong." Leuci spent a decade working at watering holes abroad, from France to Florida to the Bahamas, before coming back home last year to manage a locale in Rome's bustling Trastevere neighborhood. Right away, he was surprised to be seeing — and serving — so many young people whose only goal was to get sloshed. "In Italy, we don't have a drinking culture," Leuci says. "Lots of young people don't even know what they're drinking ... They just [want] to get drunk."

This let's-go-get-loaded spirit might not seem so strange in countries that have long battled excessive youth drinking and alcoholism. But Italy has always prided itself on a balanced — even divine — rapport with the strong stuff. Call it a sipping culture rather than a drinking culture: Italians traditionally serve wine at the family dinner table, with boys and girls often getting their first taste of alcohol around age 12. The national minimum drinking age of 16 is often ignored and rarely enforced.

But now the northern city of Milan has decided that the festa is over. Citing some alarming statistics about preteen alcohol abuse, the city has imposed a strict new local law that goes beyond the legislation that currently allows only those over 16 to buy booze. For the first time in Italy, the parents of anyone underage caught drinking and anyone who supplies someone under 16 with alcohol will face punishment, with a fine of up to $700.

When it approved the measure earlier this month, the Milan city council unveiled a study that showed that 34% of 11-year-olds have "problems with alcohol" (without specifying what those problems are). In June the Alcohol Observatory of the Italian National Health Institute found that 63% of youths under 18 get drunk on weekends, with boys consuming an average of four drinks per drinking session and girls consuming six.

Milan Mayor Letizia Moratti called the new law a "response to an emergency" rather than some newfound whiff of puritanism. "It is a message to young people and their families that alcohol is bad for you and that alcohol abuse and dependence lead to negative consequences," she told reporters.

Milan's measure was quickly applauded by the city's most powerful native son, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has had his fair share of festas but is not known as a heavy drinker. The 72-year-old billionaire Prime Minister encouraged other municipalities to follow Milan's lead, and by last week, there was a second city making a change to tackle underage drinking. The western Sicilian city of Caltagirone, famous as the birthplace of Don Luigi Sturzo, a Catholic priest and the father of Italy's modern Christian Democratic Party, will not punish underage consumers — or their parents — but it will impose fines of $70 to $350 on those who furnish them with alcohol.

Not surprisingly, there are already signs of a mini cultural counterrevolution — not from the youth ranks but rather from an old face of Italian public life. Vittorio Sgarbi — an art-critic provocateur and lifelong political carpetbagger, having held key posts in the Italian Cultural Ministry and Milan city council — is now mayor of the small Sicilian town of Salemi, which is trying to make its mark on the map as a major wine-producing region. "We have to teach young people to drink Italian wine," Sgarbi declared to the AGI news agency last week. "If there's something to ban, it's Coca-Cola, Fanta and other disgusting [products]. I invite all young people to Salemi where they can drink freely."

Back in Rome, there are no new plans to fine underage drinkers or bar and supermarket owners who sell alcohol to under-16s. A new measure imposed this month, however, does prohibit the sale of glass bottles by bars for takeaway customers, in the hopes that the law might limit boozing to drinking establishments and reduce cleanup efforts. But bar manager Leuci says the problem isn't about what laws are passed or not but how they are enforced. Or not.

At his Caffe Friends in Piazza Trilussa, there is a general policy not to sell to anyone under 18. But Leuci points out that bartenders and business owners have no right under Italian law to demand that someone shows proper identification before being served. "Like all things in Italy, it's a gray area," he says. "The [national] government and the cities delegate to the people to go figure it out on their own."

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