Swiss tax to curb adolescent drinking

Peter Lexen, like many underage drinkers, has been swigging alcopops since he was 13 – a growing trend the Swiss government hopes to pour cold water on with a massive tax raise from next year.

    Teenage drinking is socially acceptable in Switzerland

    But firms that make the sweet, fizzy tipple, claim children will simply turn to other alcoholic drinks like wine, a heavily protected industry here, and accuse Switzerland of leading a witch-hunt to push popular beverages such as Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer out of the market.

    Last month, the government voted to raise the tax on so-called alcopops –  lemonade-like drinks with an alcohol content of between four to 6.5% – by 300%.

    This means the average price of a Smirnoff Ice from the local supermarket for example would rise from about 2.5 Swiss francs (€1.6, $1.9) to about 4.0 Swiss francs (€2.6 euros, $3). By comparison, a bottle of beer costs about 2.0 Swiss francs.

    Lucien Erard, director of the official Swiss Alcohol Board, applauded the decision.

    "No one has solved any excessive drinking problems with taxes because what will happen is that the consumption will be transferred to something else"

    Alexandra Rys,
    spokeswoman, Branded Spirits Distribution Association

    "These drinks are made with sugar and designed specifically for children," he said.

    "There is absolutely no reason to add alcohol, it is done because companies want children to get into the habit of drinking booze."

    The legal drinking age in Switzerland is 18 for spirits – including alcopops – and 16 for wine and beer.

    'Impossible to stop'

    But Erard admitted it was almost impossible to stop youngsters from consuming alcohol at an earlier age because they simply acquired drink from adults or fooled shopkeepers into thinking they were old enough.

    The best way to fight the problem was to hit their wallets, he explained.

    "Price plays a very important role in consumption amongst teenagers."

    Alexandra Rys, a spokeswoman for the Branded Spirits Distributers Association (GSSM) which represents drinks giants such as Diageo – maker of Smirnoff Ice – Bacardi and Campari, strongly disagrees with the tax.

    "You hear a lot about people who are 13 or 14 who drink these drinks and that really is a problem," she conceded.

    Tax 'unheard of'

    "Price plays a very important role in consumption amongst teenagers"

    Lucien Erard,
    Director, Swiss Alcohol Board

    "But no one has solved any excessive drinking problems with taxes because what will happen is that the consumption will be transferred to something else."

    A similar tax on wine or beer –  another socially acceptable drink, would be unheard of, Rys claimed.

    "Spirits are always a target in this country ... whereas wine, you don't even start discussing it," she said, adding that the public failed to realise there is far more alcohol in a bottle of wine than a glass of whisky.

    Asked whether she thought the government was leading a witch-hunt against alcopop makers with the new tax, Rys replied: "Oh it is, without a doubt ... This will drive them out of the market, that is clear."

    Despite her argument, groups tackling the problem of alcoholism argued the alcopop-tax was a step in the right direction.



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