The young man is 15, maybe 16. Just a few hours earlier he was fresh-faced and smiling while shaking the hand of his school headmaster and collecting his certificate for graduating from primary school. Now, he's lying prone across a wooden picnic bench, drunk and puking his guts out on the ground below him. And he’s laughing. And his friends are cheering him on.
“Well, at least he was nice enough not to vomit on the table,” said one of the adults assigned to chaperone the boy and the 19 or so of his classmates gathered to celebrate finishing Folkeskolen.
Chaperoning, in this instance, consists mostly of cleaning up the mess and making sure the kids don’t hurt themselves or each other. She and the two other parents that volunteered to help just broke up a group that were shooting roman candles at each other. The boy on the table is her son.
Suggestions to the kids that they may be drinking too much too fast are met with something between mild derision or outright scorn.
“Look, I have been drinking since I was 13,” said Frank*, a strikingly handsome young teenager. “My mom is picking me up and she knows I am going to be wasted.”
The scene is one that is repeated numerous times around the country at this time of year, as young people celebrate finishing school with parties that include binge drinking. But the time-honoured tradition has met with headwind after a recent report showed that one in 12 young Danes between the ages of 15 and 24 have an alcohol or drug problem so severe that they should be receiving treatment.
Drug and alcohol researchers at Aarhus University asked more than 4,500 young people from four municipalities about their consumption of drugs and alcohol. Their responses, converted into nationwide figures, suggest that somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 young people have a ‘serious drug problem’ – one that requires treatment – while 32,000 of those in the same age group are ‘extreme’ abusers.
"These are incredibly high numbers,” Professor Mads Uffe Pedersen, a co-author of the report, told Politiken newspaper. “Young people in Denmark start drinking and taking drugs very early, and a large percentage of them have serious problems.”
That the young people have trouble managing their alcohol is evident at the graduation party. Any real sense of fun or companionship seems to be beside the point. The challenge seems to be who can drink the most in the shortest amount of time. Backpacks that until yesterday were heavy with school books are now stuffed with clinking bottles of beer, bottles of cheap wine, and wine coolers of every make and flavour. And although hard liquor is supposed to be off limits, more than a few bottles of gin, vodka and rum are on open display.
“My parents gave me a Red Bull and vodka fountain at my confirmation,” said 15 year-old Casper, one of the class’s football stars. “They think it is better that I drink and they know about it than that I sneak off, get drunk and get hurt somewhere.”
Problematic drug use, according to the study, starts when people use drugs at least four times a month. Using drugs eight or more times a month constitutes a habit requiring treatment.
For alcohol, the numbers were 21 drinks per week for women and 28 for men. Alcohol abuse requiring treatment was 28 drinks per week for women and 35 for men.
"The survey clearly shows the consequences of substance abuse,” said Pedersen. “It effects the young people’s education, work and social lives.”
Pedersen also said that for those with a predisposition to substance abuse, the risks increase when the drinking and drug use start early.
Political leaders from across the spectrum rushed to decry the figures in the report.
Speaking with Politiken newspaper, Jonas Dahl, health spokesperson for Socialistisk Folkeparti, called the numbers ‘catastrophic’, while Venstre’s Sophie Løhde described them as "deeply disturbing" and reflected a shift in values among teens. She said both national and local programs should be put in place to address the problem.
Sophie Hæstorp Andersen (Socialdemokraterne) said that publishing the study was only a first step.
"It does no good to point fingers and say what is dangerous or illegal,” Andersen told Politiken. “We need to encourage young people to seek out help and advice without the fear that there will be consequences.”
Many of the parents of the children at the party attended a meeting at the start of the school year where the alcohol policy for the class was discussed. What were the limits? One drink per party? Two? No limits? Up to the student’s parents?
One foreign-born father pointed out that young people in this age group were not allowed to drink at all where he was from, and that alcohol for teens would be forbidden at his house. He was virtually shouted down by parents that reminded him that he lived in Denmark now and was told he was being unrealistic.
Later that same night, his son was on the sidewalk, shirtless in the nine degree weather, passed out.
Kevin Freeman is a Texan who lives in Denmark and shares custody of his two sons with his Danish ex-wife. A musician who says he’s no teetotaller, Freeman thinks drinking among young people in Denmark is an issue that needs to be addressed.
“The problem is not only that kids here start early, they are also at binge-levels of consumption from the beginning” said Freeman. “As an expat parent, you want your kids to fit in, but at the same time you have to look out for their well-being.”
Freeman’s boys are 13 and 10 and he has already started having talks with his oldest son about the dangers and risks involved with drinking at an early age.
Many believe that the unhealthy relationship with alcohol displayed by young people is a symptom of a growing national addiction to booze. A Megafon/Politiken/TV 2 poll revealed that 40 percent of those asked believe that all Danes drink excessively, regardless of age. However, only one out of five would support government intervention in the form of higher taxes on alcohol or warning labels like those seen on cigarette packets.
Anette Søgaard Nielsen, head of Alkoholbehandlingen, an alcohol abuse research centre in Odense, told Politiken that those numbers reveal just how reluctant people are to admit the prevalence of alcohol in the country’s culture.
“We all believe our own drinking habits are under control and it’s only other people that have a problem,” said Nielsen.
Last year the World Health Organisation (WHO) published disturbing figures showing that Denmark’s alcohol consumption has been among the highest in Europe for the past 30 years. Those numbers include the nearly 600,000 Danes who may not be alcoholics, but are still “problem drinkers” according to Sundhedsstyrelsen, the national board of health.
Kit Broholm, an adviser to Sundhedsstyrelsen, believes that people too often feel pressured to drink even when they do not want to.
"Alcohol is expected to be part of every social occasion, and people are made to feel like they are killing the party if they say no,” she told Politiken. “It should be more accepted for someone to simply say that they do not want to drink.”
Meanwhile, back at the graduation party, Elisabeth, a red-eyed, thin blonde girl who said she will be 16 in July, took a drink from her wine cooler, and admitted that she had also ‘smoked a little hash’ as part of the celebrations.
“This is the last time we will all be together, so we deserve to party. Besides, a lot of us are going on to gymnasium where they party like this every weekend.”
*The names of all the young people mentioned in this story have been changed.