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Dispute over alcohol ban in Basel's youth clubs escalates

A referendum about exceptional licence allowance for alcohol in Basel's youth clubs is to start the next round in a long-lasting dispute. The committee blames the parliament for allowing «far too much» alcohol to be drunk at youth clubs. The institution for youth work however says that alcohol is a reality for youngsters – and that they have to learn to deal with it.

«Meeting centres for youngsters should not communicate the message that alcohol consumption was cool, since real ecstasy comes from within,» the referendum committee «alcohol in youth clubs» argues. 

Neither the youth clubs nor the government should promote the message that drinking alcohol is cool. In revising the Gastronomy Act, the Parliament has removed the paragraph with the preventative content «no alcohol in youth clubs».

This was not the opinion of Alex Klee from the referendum committee, who believes «youth clubs must remain free from alcohol» altogether.

«We could approve of an exceptional regulation without any problem,» Mr Klee, a member of the citizens' assembly, said.

«The government had wanted that originally. From our point of view this is giving out the wrong signal.»

He is convinced that those who operate youth clubs would not offer alcohol easily but he also says: «Although I completely trust the youth club organisers, they would be allowed to offer alcohol at the bar. This is what the act says now, and the committee opposes this. It cannot be that youngsters have to feel pressurised to drink, especially in youth clubs. Additionally, 12-14 year-olds are also hanging around in youth clubs.»

No exclusive ban for youth clubs 

The institution for youth work (JuAr) however is strongly against the referendum. It runs seven youth clubs in Basel and defends itself.

A press release issued this week claimed that young people are drinking less and less alcohol nowadays.

«There is no need for dramatising!», the statement said.

«It cannot be disputed that there is alcohol abuse among youngsters and adults likewise. However, the consumption of alcohol has been massively decreasing in Switzerland among youngsters in the last years.»

JuAr-manager Albrecht Schönbucher told barfi.ch that it was «disappointing» that people who spoke up in support of the referendum had never contacted them directly.

«The danger is that a consequence of a generalised, undifferentiated, and populist discussion leads to a situation that Basel remains the only canton with an unconditional and absolute ban of alcohol in youth clubs.»

Unfortunately, the referendum is not a counter-proposition, according to Alex Klee. He said the committee was not against exceptions in youth clubs so long as they adhere to youth protection legislation.

However, he added: «There shouldn't be a general licence for alcohol in youth clubs. For the government it would be easy to adjust regulations and allow exceptions after the voting.»

JuAr Basel fears the discussion will become too populist. The campaign suggests in its first sentence and marked as a quotation a «dramatic and worrying increase» in alcohol abuse. The opposite is the reality.

«The prevention office «Sucht Schweiz», quoted by the committee, had shown in long-term studies that the weekly alcohol consumption among youngsters was dramatically decreasing since the mass popularity of so-called alcopops at the start of the millennium,» Albert Schönbucher said.

«We trust the common sense of the public and assume that drink and tobacco will accompany us forever. It is more sensible to find a conscious and sane way of using it. The dosage was decisive.»

Short-term request 

Irene Abderhalden, manager of «Sucht Schweiz» – a foundation financed 50 per cent by the federal government – confirms that they were asked to write a statement with the arguments against alcohol licences in youth clubs.

«It was a general professional question, not whether we were supporting or opposing a referendum, and therefore we did not deal with the political process in the canton,» she said.

But Ms Abderhalden personally does not approve of a general licence: «A general licence cannot be recommended,» she said.

«As long as the regulations of the youth protection law are guaranteed, it would be possible to allow exceptions within accompanied parties. Then the message would be that alcohol is not an ordinary consumer good which automatically must be part of the life of youngsters but that within specific events and when youth protection regulations are guaranteed, alcohol can be tolerated as an exception.»

Hardened fronts 

Meanwhile, the fronts in Basel have hardened. In answering the question whether a ban of alcohol in youth clubs was sensible, JuAr-manager Albrecht Schönbucher said: «Absolutely not! We have had this in place for long enough without any effect on those who take risks with alcohol or drugs.»

The youth protection act should be our highest reference. The parliamentary decision transfers responsibility to the youth workers on the spot and appeals to their sensibilities: «Maybe it was easier to simply ban alcohol, but it's also the most inflexible solution which in many situations has no effect, except that the Rhine banks become over-crowded, or that there are other places where people can binge drink without any control.»

The response of Irene Abderhalden from the foundation «Sucht Schweiz», who keeps a distance to the local dispute, is more calm:

«Apparently it is an open and disputed question who was responsible for exceptional licences, whether it should be the authorities or the youth workers,» she said.

«We haven't been asked about this, however. We cannot take position in local disputes which we don't know enough since we are a national organisation.»

Alex Klee however says that the committee is not against exceptional regulations. But if one would consider for example «tobacco» as a legal drug, then nobody would have the idea to sell cigarettes in a youth club. Prevention here, repression there: In the end it will be up to the government to allow exceptions in alcohol licence to youth clubs. Since this is what all parties want.