It’s 5 o’clock in Denmark

Diaglogue regarding Danish youth drinking culture gains traction

By Emmie Deaton and Mayar Elshsarkawy

All data based off the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs of 15-16 year old students in 2015. Graphic by Emmie Deaton.

Birgitte Vederso, chairman of Danish Gymnasiums, released a statement warning all gymnasiums against the dangers of youth drinking. A study conducted by the World Health Organization in 2015 found that Danish youth, described as ages 15-16, had the highest rate of binge drinking among European teens. Vederso’s statement, released in late August, indicates that the issue may not be improving. 

“The Danish Gymnasiums and the National Board of Health would like to encourage the municipality to ensure safe nightlife for young people,” stated Vederso. “Let’s get together in a joint effort to care for the young.”

The Danes have always regarded social drinking as an important part of their culture. The European School Survey on Alcohol and Other Drugs found that Denmark is one of the top seven European countries in alcohol consumption.  This means younger generations are exposed to alcohol often—and early on. Denmark is also one of only 20 countries worldwide with a drinking and purchase age below 18. Students can buy “soft alcohol,” or beer, wine, and ciders, at the age of 16.

Beginning at the age of 16, Danes can legally purchase “soft alcohol,” which is classified as containing less than 14 percent alcohol. Photo by Emmie Deaton.

As Vederso mentions, this has created potential issues with drinking in gymnasiums where first-year students, typically entering at 16, are of legal age to consume alcohol.

“We know that the line the school sets in relation to social events like parties, intro tours, study trips, Friday cafes, etc. will have a big impact on the student’s intoxicant subculture,” explained Vederso in the statement.

According to Skanderborg Gymnasium Principle Jakob Dahl, Denmark’s relaxed consumption policies are a reflection of the government’s faith in their electorate.

“It is and has been a long tradition in Denmark to allow alcohol to young people,” explained Dahl. “Confidence is the key word. We do have confidence in our kids and the adults around our kids that we will take care of each other.”

Denmark has always considered it to be a normal aspect of life. Here, there is no concept of “underage drinking.” Parents are free to allow their child alcohol. Restrictions target individual purchase, which begin at 16.

“In that sense, we have a very low amount of control,” said Dahl. “The parents will buy alcohol for their kids and the majority believe that it is a part of growing up to learn how to deal with alcohol.”

But Dahl also noted a recent reduction in the normality of social drinking among adolescents. He says the availability of alcoholic beverages to people below the age of 16 caused increasing concern among parents, teachers, and other adults. Research indicates that early exposure to alcohol can significantly increase chances of developing an addiction later in life.

“We have a long tradition of drinking alcohol in job and everyday life—in this aspect, also education,” Dahl explains. “It is only in the last 20 years that we are beginning to reduce this culture.”

This means many schools are starting to implement tighter drinking policies. Alcohol was once casually integrated with Danish education, but gymnasiums are now taking further steps to distance the two.

“In my school, we have banned alcohol in all events that have a connection to education itself,” said Dahl. “But we do have alcohol in festival arrangements.”

Dahl also noted that gymnasiums typically restrict their drink choices to soft alcohols like beer and cider. Signs of intoxication can also lead to a student being sent home.

“For instance, the parents of my students allow their kid to drink alcohol prior to a party, and if the kids get too drunk and we call them,” explained Dahl, “they come and collect them without any complaint to us as a school.”

A study conducted by the Nordic Welfare Centre found that 52 percent of Danes from ages 16-20 felt there was too much drinking on campus, and 44 percent supported stricter rules.

“We all support that [Birgitte Vederso’s statement] in my school and every other high school I know,” stated Dahl.