Bye-bye happy hour
In Barcelona, a city where it has never been hard to find a drink, the recent prohibition here of ‘happy hours’ and similar promotions, in an attempt to control alcohol abuse, came as a surprise to many.
In October, the Catalan parliament unanimously passed legislation banning bars, restaurants and discos from serving or promoting drinks as part of two-for-one specials, at discounted prices or as prizes for competitions or draws. ‘Open’ bars, or all-you-can-drink nights, were also forbidden. The law came into effect in November, and those who break it are subject to fines of up to €6,000.
British media were quick to blame their hard-drinking fellow countrymen for the change in legislation. The Daily Telegraph reported that Barcelona had “declared war” on drunken tourists visiting the city to celebrate stag and hen weekends. However, that perception is wrong, a spokesperson for the Generalitat’s Departament de Salut, Mariona Sanz Cortel, told Metropolitan. “It has nothing to do with English tourists, it’s a matter of public health.”
How much, where and the age at which Catalans drink is of growing concern to authorities. The last decade has seen a rise in the botellón, or ‘big bottle’ phenomenon among youth here, and all over Spain. This is the practice that sees teen drinkers congregate on the street to share strong liquor bought in supermarkets or corner stores and mixed with soft drinks or juices.
A 2004 Spanish Ministry of Health survey found that over 65 percent of students between the ages of 14 and 18 had drunk alcohol in the previous month, and that 30 percent of them had become intoxicated in the same time period. “The habit of binge drinking, consuming a large quantity of alcohol in a short period of time, has become extensive among minors,” wrote Elena Salgado in a 2007 report, when she was the Spanish Minister of Health.
Aside from health and safety issues, street revellers cause perpetual headaches for residents in neighbourhoods such as Ciutat Vella and Gràcia, who are forced to put up with noise, fights, litter and pavements stinking of vomit and urine several nights a week.
This is a cultural trend that was unimaginable in Barcelona 30 years ago. For María Luisa Solé, a professor of Economics at the University of Barcelona specialising in consumer behaviour and now in her late 40s, drinking on the street when she was a teenager would have been “impossible”—the laws were stricter, the social stigma surrounding public drunkenness more binding.
Solé told Metropolitan there are a number of reasons why young Catalans take part in these drinking rituals. “The botellón is partly a question of weather. In Spain we have good weather, and instead of having drinks inside we have them outside. It’s also a question of price. Young people don’t have money to pay for drinks inside bars or discos.”
Some also object to the penny-pinching practice of bar and disco owners known as garrafón, or the ‘great decanter’. One such person is Marc Ripolles, a 23-year-old Catalan engineering student. “They empty a bottle of Jack Daniels, for instance, and then refill it with some cheaper alcohol. You drink it and then wake up the next day with a terrible headache.”
What most concerns María Luisa Solé is the young age at which teens start to drink. She thinks better education, stricter police controls and higher fines are needed to curb Catalunya’s young drinkers. She is also worried about a changing gender pattern. “The other problem is that in the past, the women didn’t drink a lot of alcohol, but now, the heavy consumer is not the boys, but the girls.”
It has also got easier for people to buy drinks here. While by law the sale of alcohol after 11pm is prohibited, shop owners in Ciutat Vella will often bend the rules, despite a spate of recent inspections by the Guàrdia Urbana. But the most common source of after-hours booze in Barcelona is likely to be that of the street vendors, known as lateros in Castilian, who illegally sell cans of beer into the small hours. Police crackdowns in June and July this year netted some 110,000 cans, more than double the 43,100 beers confiscated the year before over the same period, according to Ajuntament figures.
A 24-year-old Indian man, who identified himself only as Singh, is one of the sellers targeted by such blitzes. He worked as an agricultural labourer in his native India before coming to Spain seven months ago. Now, he walks the streets of Gràcia every night, from 11pm until 4 or 5am, calling “cerveza, beers” and dangling a six-pack off his fingers.
He said he typically sells between two and four dozen cans a night, making just enough to cover his food and rent. Since he has been in Barcelona, he’s been taken to the police station once. There, he was fined €125 and fingerprinted. But his beers are seized regularly by the Guàrdia Urbana. “If they come, I just stay where I am,” he said. “If you run, they catch you and hit you.”
While many chiringuitos, or beach bars, have complained that the lateros are unfair competition, 28-year-old Argentine bartender Alejandro Devoto said the cocktail lounge in the Raval where he works hasn’t been affected. “If people want to drink cheaply, they’ll do it at home or on the street or wherever,” he pointed out. “They don’t affect us directly.”
He was skeptical about the effect on drinking habits that the ‘happy hour’ legislation would have. “Right now bars have a happy hour, the only difference is that they can’t publicise it. Bars will charge €4 instead of €6 or €8 for a drink, which is a happy hour, but the thing is they just can’t advertise it. For me, the idea that people over the age of 18 can’t decide what they can or can’t drink is nonsense.”
Maximiliano Lazzuy, a manager of La Cigale in Gràcia, said education is the key to changing bad habits, not prohibition. “What we have are policies from the state that are becoming more and more repressive, but don’t necessarily teach people how to drink better,” he said. “Those who abuse alcohol are not those who drink during the happy hours so the objective [of the law] is totally wrong. We have a happy hour from six to 10pm, but people don’t leave the bar wasted from cocktails.
“What Spaniards and their politicians need to decide is what kind of country they want to live in. There’s a fine line between something that’s fun and something that’s dangerous, and finding that is a difficult job.”