BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Bleary-eyed and unaware his heart had stopped beating three times, Alejandro Colman woke from a four-day coma to tell doctors he had won a holiday for two and a T-shirt.
He vaguely recalled being the last man on his feet after a vodka- and tequila-drinking contest at a discotheque in a beach resort, but did not know police pulled him out of a ditch and got him to a hospital.
Colman, 20, had staggered out of the disco and collapsed before he could claim his prizes.
Experts say alcohol abuse by young people is soaring in Argentina, a country rarely associated in the past with heavy drinking or public drunkenness. The sight of youngsters swigging from concealed beer bottles in city plazas is now commonplace.
A major factor is the freedom young people have lived with since democratic rule replaced a heavy-handed rightist military dictatorship in 1983, the experts say.
"The motto for kids in Argentina these days is: 'I want to do my own thing,' whereas in the past this wasn't possible" said sociologist Hugo Haime.
"You now see Argentines drinking earlier, having sex earlier and taking drugs due to a basic lack of values which has accompanied that freedom," he said.
Colman almost became the first fatality of a price war between nightclubs at popular beach resorts lining Argentina's Atlantic coast. Vying for summertime revelers, clubs are holding drinking contests and offering the chance to "drink till dawn," often with two drinks for the price of one.
Contestants, like Colman, lie back against the bar and swallow a mix of spirits poured straight from the bottle or squirted from a large syringe by bartenders. They pay for the first drink, and the next one is free.
"It seems we're plagued with people who want to line their pockets by creating these demented murder games. They're now run-of-the-mill everywhere," said Alberto Lestelle, head of the Anti-Drug Secretariat, a government agency that researches drug addiction and alcohol abuse.
Shocked by increasing alcohol abuse by young Argentines, lawmakers have begun working on legislation that would increase fines to $10,000 to $50,000 for selling liquor to persons under the age of 18.
Although current law makes it illegal to sell alcohol to minors, offending shopkeepers are rarely punished and people tend to turn a blind eye.
The proposed bill also would ban alcohol sales at sports events, promote anti-alcoholism education in schools and ban drinking in the streets.
"Alcohol abuse doesn't just happen in bars," Lestelle said. "In my neighborhood you often see kids on the streets with a beer in their hand. It's high time we stopped looking the other way."
Colman's brush with death last February led police to close down 14 nightclubs nationwide the following week. All were staging similar drinking contests, often involving minors.
Eighty youths between the ages of 13 and 19 were found drunk during the raids, police said. Some 200 young people and adults in one club were given alcohol tests, and 180 were legally intoxicated.
Two days after Colman's ordeal, 20-year-old Ariel Pirozzi was found dead in his home in the resort of Mar del Plata after returning home from a nightclub. Police said an autopsy determined that his death followed intoxication on a mix of gin and champagne.
"This bill doesn't aim to abolish drinking," said Mirtha Assem, public relations director at the Anti-Drug Secretariat. "We just want people to drink in moderation and to use their heads."