An evening of wining and dining—a longstanding Italian tradition—may soon change with the arrival of a new law to the table. The government under Prime Minister Romano Prodi has drafted a law in the 2007 budget to change Italy’s legal drink-ing age from 16 to 18. Historically, Italian culture accepts drinking wine during meals, even for the youngest seated at the ta-ble. In the company of family and before their legal driving age, young people are taught to drink moderately. The govern-ment’s proposal to increase the drinking age to 18 will make this tradition a legal offense.
The law aims to align Italy with the drinking age status of other European countries. Although the United States has a legal drinking age of 21, most European countries have a legal age of 18 and below. The United Kingdom, for example, has a set age of 18 to purchase alcohol, but the law allows people 16 and over to order beer, cider, or wine with a meal in a restaurant or pub. Those under 16 may also have a drink with a meal if they are accompanied by an adult. Spain and Poland have drinking ages of 18, while Portugal’s and France’s are set at 16. Other countries have different legal ages for purchasing and drinking, or for consuming beer/wine and hard alcohol. Supervision by an adult is a common stipulation in many countries’ laws.
In Italy, bars and restaurants have met the new law proposal with heated debate. The Italian Federation of Trading Con-cerns (Fipe), for example, which represents 80,000 bars and cafés, 60,000 restaurants, 20,000 pizzerias, 7,000 nightclubs and discotheques, and many other spots frequented by teens, fears their businesses will suffer a financial loss if the law is passed. Article 90 of the proposed budget sets fines from 3,000 to 6,000 euro for anyone caught selling alcohol to people under 18. The same article also foresees a complete ban on the sale of alcohol at motorway service stations and restaurants across the country.
Moderate alcohol consumption has long been socially accepted in Italy, one of the worlds leading wine-producing countries. Ayse Tunca, an international student from Turkey currently living in Florence, observed, ‘In Italy, there is a culture where young people can enjoy a drink but not over-consume alcohol. The age from 16 to 18 is a like a tolerance learning period, in which teens can drink without risk of jeopardizing their lives behind the wheel.’
One of the government’s hopes is that the new law will help decrease the number of automobile accidents involving teens. About 200 Italian teenagers die every year as a result of accidents involving drinking and driving. However, with the driving age at 18, this law proves inapplicable to the current teen accident statistics.
Sally Heaven, Dean of Students at Lorenzo de’ Medici, a University for international students studying abroad in Florence, said that the drinking age change would not make a difference to the students under her supervision, as most are already 18. ‘This law would not have any relevance in Italy, when it comes to automobile accidents. One way to save lives would be to cut down on how large teens’ cars are. Italy once enforced a weight allowance for automobiles, but this regulation no longer ex-ists.’
In Italy, the day after teens turn 18 years old they can apply for the foglio rosa, a temporary driving permit, which is valid for 6 months. During this period, teens complete a written and driving practical exam and keep a large letter ‘P’ displayed in their cars until they obtain their full license.
According to current regulations, the acceptable blood alcohol level, or tasso di alcolemia, is .5 grams per liter. If drivers are found exceeding this limit, they receive a fine in the range of 258 to 1,032 euro. Upon verification of the offense, their license can be suspended for anywhere from 15 days to three months. Ten out of 22 points get docked off their point-system, but after two years—if there are no additional infractions—the original points are restored.
Tunca observed that there is little education on drinking and driving in Italy compared to what she sees in Turkey. ‘I never see anti-drunk-driving campaigns on television here. It seems like the issue would be given more attention with the wide use of motorbikes in this country. More emphasis should be placed on campaigning against drunk-driving and in favor of respon-sible drinking.’
Although it may be too late to make amendments to the proposed drinking and driving laws, the Italian parliament has the opportunity to remove the current law proposal up to the final approval of the budget in late December. Until then, in restau-rants and bars across Italy, both young and old will still be allowed to toast to la Dolce Vita.