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Open-air drinking craze unnerves Swiss authorities

22 August 2008

GENEVA — Teenagers and alcohol have always been a heady mix, but an added shot of Web 2.0 has sent Swiss authorities scrambling to find a law against mass open-air drinking parties.

The Spanish craze for "botellon" – where young people gather in public places to party – landed in Switzerland in July and lured throngs of revellers through open invitations on social networking sites like Facebook.

Police, parents and politicians are vowing to stop a repeat of events in Geneva in July when 1,300 people met for a spontaneous alcohol-fuelled party, sending dozens to the hospital.

City councillors in nearby Lausanne held an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss how to deal with the mass drinking phenomenon.

"We convinced the organiser to cancel the event planned for this weekend," said Lausanne’s director of public security Marc Vuilleumier.

But he acknowledged that Facebook users and their friends may still turn up spontaneously, leaving authorities with no single organiser to hold responsible.

A complete ban is out of the question because public drinking is legal in Switzerland – provided participants are at least 16 years old.

"If people come we will have a proportionate response," Vuilleumier said. "We’ve seen the risks that exist to public order," he said, citing complaints about noise, rubbish and violence at the Geneva event.

In Zurich, police said they may resort to an ordinance that regulates the "increased use of public space" to rein in some 5,000 people who have pledged to take part in a botellon at the end of the month.

"It’s not the first time that someone drinks alcohol in Zurich," said police spokesman Marco Cortesi. "But we’ve never had this kind of collective indulgence organised over the Internet."

"Legally we can’t do much if people come, as long as there is no underage drinking or other offences being committed," he added.

Fears have been stoked by Switzerland’s largest tabloid newspaper, Blick, which told its readers Wednesday that "a wave of alcohol is washing over all of Switzerland."

Far from being a peaceful gathering, "botellon is mainly about drinking until you drop," the newspaper warned.

But Kurt Imhof, a sociology professor at Zurich University, said the public frenzy is hypocritical given that mass drinking is widely accepted at village festivals throughout Switzerland, as in most of Europe.

What is more, complaints about youthful boozing may have an unintended result, he said.

"Outrage over mass drinking provokes mass drinking," Imhof told the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper. "After all the press coverage, every young person will want to go. Now it becomes really interesting."

Meanwhile, Geneva has decided that prohibition may not be the way forward.

"A person has offered to take responsibility for the next event, so we are in discussions about tolerating it," said Patrick Pulh, a spokesman for the city’s police department.

"People want one last party at the end of the summer. Believe me, by October nobody will want to hang around in the park anymore."

[AP / Expatica]