View from Germany: Powdered alcohol helps kids skirt legal age

Starting them young

It's late in the evening and Dirk has just run up his computer to make a few last minute purchases for his 16th birthday party. At his first stop, he buys a few dozen small packets of powder. Mixed with water, the powder will turn into an alcopop, a mixture of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages that has become increasingly popular among underage drinkers in Germany. Dirk would have a hard time getting past the cashier at his local supermarket, since he is below legal age. And even if he found an older friend to shop for him, the price tag would probably limit his purchase to a few bottles. Last July, a law took effect aiming to prevent young people from buying and drinking alcopops. The German government imposed a special tax of 80 euro cents to 90 euro cents for each 275-ml bottle. The French did the same a few years ago, and the market for alcopops collapsed. Producers have also been forced to label the bottles clearly so that cashiers see that these drinks may not be sold to teenagers under the age of 18. By selling alcopops in powder form over the Internet, Subyou has gained a competitive advantage. To begin with, buyers do not have to pay the special tax or Germany's bottle deposit. In addition, teenagers can order the powder on the Internet, where it is difficult to confirm the buyer's age. A packet contains 65 grams of powder, which can be turned into a powerful drink containing 4.8 percent alcohol.

In the last few years, alcopops have become more and more popular, especially among young people. The mixture of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, mostly spirits or beer mixed with soft drinks or flavor enhancers, contains between 5 and 6 percent alcohol. The addition of non-alcoholic drinks and sweetener means you cannot taste the liquor, making them easier to drink for young people. They also tend to think these drinks are weaker than other alcoholic beverages, but in reality, the opposite is the case. The amount of alcohol in one alcopop is equivalent to two shots of tequila. Alcopops are the most popular alcoholic drinks among 14-to-17-year-olds, even though the minimum age for the purchase of alcopops is 18. Back in 1998, under-29-year-olds bought just 7 percent of all alcopops sold in Germany. By 2003, this group accounted for a whopping 40 percent, according to a study by the Federal Center for Health Education in 2003. The popularity of alcopops has also reversed the downward trend in the consumption of hard liquor. The average consumption per capita of pure alcohol had decreased to 10.5 liters in 2001 from 12.9 liters in 1980. By 2004, it had jumped back up to about 11 liters.

Germany's drug tsar, Marion Caspers-Merk (SPD), lashed out against alcopops two years ago, referring to the popular mixture as a “gateway drug.” The drinks are especially popular among 10-to-20-year-olds, an age when many people start getting addicted to alcohol.

Fee Decher
4 February 2005

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