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Last update on March 11, 2019

Switzerland’s drinking culture is more liberal than the controlled drinking the US – and yet statistics show the US has more problems with alcohol abuse. How can this be?

During the past 12 years of living in the Alps, I’ve noticed that alcohol abuse is nearly as pervasive here as it is back in Newport, Rhode Island.

Although the two places are poles apart – different languages, cultures, and histories; one is land-locked and mountainous and the other is flat and by the ocean – the one thing they do share is a transient, holiday, party atmosphere, with alcohol being an intrinsic part of society.

I asked my therapist if alcohol abuse was worse in the mountains than it is in the lowlands, and she said ‘yes’ and she attributed the problem to it being a holiday destination.

Statistics on Swiss drinking

So, I took my research to the internet and found that the US scores a little worse than Switzerland in terms of the cost of alcohol abuse. According to a published Swiss government study, the cost to society, companies and to the economy of excessive drinking was CHF 4.2 billion (USD 4.75 billion) or CHF 632 (or USD 721) per person in 2010. Interestingly, men were responsible for much of the higher cost. A similar study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US found that excessive drinking cost the USD 223.5 billion in 2006 or USD 746 per person (so USD 25 more than in Switzerland), most of which was attributable to binge drinking. These numbers would indicate that the alcohol problem is worse in the US than in Switzerland.

How can that be?

Switzerland’s laws on alcohol consumption are far more relaxed than those in the US. Could it be that when things are forbidden, they become all the more enticing? Could it be that the alcohol problem in Switzerland arises out of habit, whereas in the US it arises out of binge drinking?

Anyway, here are the laws compared:

  • Age limitsThe legal drinking age in Switzerland is 16 for beer, wine and cider and 18 for spirits. The canton of Ticino prohibits selling and consumption of any type of alcohol by minors under the age if 19. ‘Mystery shopping’ (test purchasing research) is conducted in our canton of Bern (regulated on a regional level). In the US, the drinking age is 21 for all types of alcoholic drinks.
  • Drinking and driving: The blood alcohol limit is 0.05 percent and in the US it’s 0.08 percent.
  • Random breath testing: yes, all European countries have this except for Britain.
    Rhode Island does not allow sobriety checkpoints due to its state constitution, but some other states do.
  • Restrictions on consumption: Consumption in public places is legal in Switzerland but not in the US, where ‘open container laws’ exist. But if you hide your bottle in a brown paper bag and the police can’t see it to prove it, you’re okay.
  • Taxation: The tax on alcohol is SFR 29 per liter of pure alcohol, SFR 5.30 for beer and there’s no tax on wine. The tax is SFR 116 per litre of pure alcohol for Alcopops. The VAT is 8 percent on alcohol, which is markedly lower than its European counterparts.
    Taxes in the US vary by state. In Rhode Island, it is around USD 0.60 per gallon of wine, USD 3.75 per gallon of spirits, and an absurdly low USD 0.11 per gallon of beer.
  • Restrictions on advertising: In Switzerland, there is a ban on advertising spirits on TV and a ‘youth protection policy’ for wine and beer. Only product information for spirits is allowed on billboards and print media and cinema. There is a ban on promotions of spirits.
    In the US, alcohol advertisements can only be placed where 70 percent of the audience is over 21 years old, the legal drinking age. Advertising cannot use cartoon characters and appeal to a younger audience, nor should it promote the effects of alcohol or irresponsible drinking. It sounds very subjective to me.
  • Restrictions at sports events: In Switzerland, there is no restriction on the sponsorship of sporting events by alcohol companies. In the US, there seems to be no laws against it. Much is left to the individual media outlets. In Switzerland, there is no restriction on the selling of alcoholic beverages at sports events. In Rhode Island, there is only beer sold at sports events.
  • Pricing policy: In Switzerland, there are no minimum prices, unlike Norway, Scotland and Sweden, where the prices are fixed by a state monopoly. There are cost-covering prices for alcoholic beverages for spirits and these are anchored in the existing statutory regulations.
  • Labeling: No health warnings or ingredients/nutrition information on a.b. are anchored in existing statutory regulations. I haven’t seen any health labels on bottles in the US.
  • Selling of alcoholic beverages: In Switzerland, one needs a licence to sell alcoholic beverages and one doesn’t have to be a liquor shop (unlike in Rhode Island). There is a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages in gas stations along highways. There is no regulation limiting the density of selling points. Restriction on the hours/days of sale is regulated by cantons. In 2012, it became illegal (check) to sell alcohol after 22pm in Switzerland.
  • Serving of alcoholic beverages: Varying by canton, there is a ‘syrup article’ that requires bars and restaurants to price their cheapest alcoholic beverage at the same amount as up to 3 non-alcoholic beverages. There are also restrictions on opening hours and this is set on a cantonal level. Plus a licence is required. Opening hours in the US are set at the state level.

Comparing Swiss drinking habits 

One study I found on the internet tried to prove that European kids had a greater problem with alcohol than American kids. It found that European kids drank more in the last 30 days than American kids did. My problem with the study is that European kids are allowed to drink, so they told the truth. The same cannot be said for their American counterparts. What American kid is going to admit to drinking when he or she knows it’s illegal?

I’ve noticed that drinking wine is part of the tradition here in the Swiss Alps. And with that comes the toast. In the US, everyone raises their glass and says ‘cheers’. There’s no one way to do it.

Here in Switzerland, you wait until everyone has been served a drink and then you clink glasses with everyone at the table or in the group saying ‘santé‘ (yes, in French, even if we are in the German part of Switzerland, our proximity to the French speaking part means that many French words enter our vocabulary), or ‘Prost‘ (if you are from a different part of German-speaking Switzerland). It is important to look in the eye of everyone, and only once everyone has clinked glasses can can you take your first sip. I’ve noticed that some people don’t like to toast with me if I happen to be drinking water.