Danes Drink Less, But Young People Still Binge-Drink

The general alcohol consumption has been decreasing in Denmark for years. But when Danish people do drink – they drink a lot. Especially the young generation.

High school students having a couple of beers at the institution’s own “Friday Bar.” A common concept for high schools, where students gather together after classes a couple of times a year. Beers, ciders and sodas are being sold to those interested. Photo: Sofie Rønnelund

by Sofie Rønnelund

Coming to Denmark as a foreigner, you will probably come to notice that the Danes like to drink. A lot. Drinking is a big part of their social life, and this has even been portrayed in the popular Danish film “Another Round”, which represents the Danish alcohol culture and the effects of it  – the good ones as well as the bad. 

But whilst Denmark has indirectly been known for their way of drinking, there has actually been a decrease of their general consumption over the years. 

However, when it comes to binge-drinking, the Danes are in the European lead – especially the young generation.

Something has changed

Looking at how much alcohol Danish citizens have bought annually, the numbers have gone down ever since 1983, which was the year where the average amount of alcohol being sold was at its peak with 13.7 litres per person.  

In 2021, the number was 10.4 litres.

Graph showing the development of alcohol sales every second year after the peak in 1983. Infographic: Sofie Rønnelund

But what changed? Freja Jørgensen, Health Consultant at Alcohol and Society – an NGO aiming for a healthier alcohol culture – believes that it is a matter of cultural changes in workplaces:

“I think the decrease comes from an overall change in our drinking culture in the workplace, more than it comes from a single big event or legislation.”

Jørgensen highlights the fact that Danes no longer drink beers during their lunch break, which was rather normal just thirty years ago. But after workplaces implemented new alcohol policies in the 00’s, the scenery is now rather uncommon.

Torsen Kolind, Director of the Center of Alcohol and Drug Research also stresses that there is no clear-cut answer as to why we buy and drink less, but gives more examples as to what can have influenced our culture:

“In 1995 we got our first age limit for alcohol purchase. The first limit was the age of 15, then it changed to 16, and today you can buy beer and ciders at 16 and pure liquor at 18. Some might mention that we’ve gotten more focused on agreements between parents and their kids – or that we’ve become more conscious of our health and therefore more focused on consequences. And others will argue that the increase in Muslims in the schools might influence the drinking culture as well. But there is no unambiguous explanation. It’s more likely a combination of several minor changes.”

But is the decrease actually prominent?

So statistically, there has been a drop in how much the Danes have bought – it’s a decrease of 30 percent. But when you compare the Danish scale of alcohol sales with the rest of Europe, the graph actually looks rather stable, compared to other countries.

An overview of the development of alcohol sales since 1965. It looks more dramatic than the first graph because the lowest here is 7 litres, and not 0 litres. Source: OECD Data – Alcohol Consumption.

An overview of the Danish alcohol sales since 1965 compared to other European countries. Source: OECD Data – Alcohol Consumption.

Ph.D. student at the Center of Alcohol and Drugs, Julie Elizabeth Brummer, describes that through the graphs, there has been an overall decline in adult per capita consumption in Europe (measured largely on sales and taxation data) – but confirms, that the Danish scale does look less prominent than other countries:

“When you look at the trends in European Union countries since, say, 1990, the declines in Denmark aren’t as marked as, for instance, Southern European countries.”

Jørgensen concludes that the numbers have gone down, which she believes is positive – but it’s not a drastic change.

Despite positive changes, youngers are the main concern 

When it comes to the Danish youth, there are also changes in their drinking pattern. For one thing, the decrease in drinking applies for them too – and they generally start drinking a little later. 

But they still score high in other areas.

Young students drinking and having fun at their University’s ‘fridaybar.’ The concept goes on not just from high school, but also to university. Video: Sofie Rønnelund

“Denmark has seen small declines in youth drinking but not as sharp as in other countries. But the country still has the highest prevalence for some youth drinking indicators,” elaborates Brummer. 

The main health organisation, The Danish Health Authority, recommends not drinking more than four drinks in one night, and preferably no more than ten drinks in a week. 

One out of seven Danes drink more than ten drinks in one week, but the numbers have been declining too. In 2010, 24.6 percent of Danes drank more than ten drinks in a week, whereas in 2021 the number has lowered to 15.7 percent on average. 

And this is where the young Danes get the spotlight. Looking at who drinks more than what is suggested, it’s mainly the eldest groups (age 65+) – and the very youngest (age 16-24).

Presentation of the different age groups and their drinking behaviour. Infographic: Sofie Rønnelund

But why is it like this?

From a kid to a grown up

According to The Knowledge Council for Prevention, who did a research paper on this exact topic, named “Young People’s Alcohol Culture – A Contribution To The Debate”, the incline in alcohol consumption increases drastically as soon as the Danish youth gets into high school. 

There are multiple reasons as to why this occurs. Kolind expresses that alcohol is a very important factor in order to strengthen the social community within young people. 

“It’s just the integrating factor for them. If they agree on meeting out on a Friday night, it’s usually not a question of what to do, but more likely what to drink,” he elaborates. They meet around alcohol. 

And one of the reasons for this is what it signals. Starting high school is an important stepping stone to becoming an adult, and Kolind furthermore explains how drinking alcohol can be a strong indicator for this exact shift – ‘almost a rite of passage,’ he describes over the phone. 

Drinking is just one way of sensing one’s own limits and boundaries, becoming free from one’s parents and simply trying out the youth life – a concept which is quite strong in Denmark.

“We encourage and expect the youth to take gap years. To travel and find themselves or create their own identity. And alcohol is, of course, one way to explore oneself,” Kolind says. 

The benefits of drinking: A social activity 

And many high school students do report benefits of drinking. In the Youth Profile Report from 2014, more than 50 percent of students claim that alcohol makes them happier, more confident and outgoing. 

One of the high school students who too experienced the positive sides to drinking alcohol is 19-year-old Ayşin Julie Özkan. She herself likes to drink and get tipsy, but confirms that she also started drinking way more as soon as she got into high school.

Ayşin Özkan explains in what way she uses alcohol – and why. Video: Sofie Rønnelund

Drinking is not always fun and games 

Despite the fun and the social impact Ayşin benefits from when drinking, the consequences of it are not always pleasant:

“I hate waking up the day after. I feel so tired in my body, and usually don’t do anything that day,” the high school student expresses. 

She also explains that she’s tried having a blackout –  however that experience made her more cautious of how much she drinks, and today she feels confident in sticking to her boundaries. 

Having negative experiences due to drinking alcohol is not unusual just for Ayşin. 

Alcohol and Society reports that in connection with drinking, high school students have tried:

Visualisation of some reported consequences. Infographic: Sofie Rønnelund

Furthermore, the Danish Health Authority documented the health risks of heavy drinking for young people in an alcohol report, for instance that it can affect the maturation and development of the brain. 

“The brain is not fully developed until around the age of 25 for both women and men. When drinking, the brain areas affected include those involved in memory, learning, planning, decision-making, impulse control and language,” the report says. 

Because of these facts, the Danish Health Authority came out in March this year and recommended – as something new – that no one below the age of 18 years should drink alcohol. 

The future and solutions 

Due to these new recommendations, multiple political parties have been pushing for raising the age limit on buying alcohol to just 18 years. This means that in the future, 16-year-olds no longer will be able to buy light liquor such as ciders and beers, but must wait two more years. 

And research documents that it might be the most effective solution. 

According to The Knowledge Council For Prevention, raising the age limit for alcohol purchases, as well as increasing the prices, are the most well-documented actions targeting the youth’s consumption. 

Next in line for best documentation level comes – among other things – stricter rules on marketing liquor, and school-based prevention programmes. 

And lastly, the weakest documentation implements media campaigns, tighter alcohol policies in schools and nightlife initiatives.  

But is a new age limit the right solution? 

Emily Leegard Kristensen, 17-year old student at Aarhus Gymnasium Tilst, says she does see the health benefits of raising the age limit, however she’s not sure it will work out in practice:

“There’s always someone else at the age of 18 who can just buy it for you.”

Health Consultant, Freja Jørgensen, stresses that culture change doesn’t happen overnight, and when it comes to high schools, it’s not just much about changing the habits for those who already started drinking – but clearing the way for future students, for instance those whose debut age is already inclined.

The Danish Parliament hasn’t made a decision yet to increase the age limit.

However, Heval Yildirim, Secretary for the left-wing party “The Alternative” writes in an email that there is “no doubt that they want to raise the age limit for buying alcohol.” She also stresses the importance of a tax increase on liquor as well as more information regarding the consequences of alcohol in schools.

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