Sat, Jul 10, 2004 - Page 6 News List

UK hopes to end culture of `drinking and fighting'

AFP , LONDON

Youngsters will be used in sting operations to catch shopkeepers and bar owners selling alcohol to under-age boozers as part of a vast operation to try to end Britain's violent binge-drinking culture.

"We're aiming to kick start a culture change where it will be less accepted by society for young men and women to go out and drink until they can't remember who they are," junior public security minister Hazel Blears said Thursday as the campaign was launched.

The operation comes amid concerns that many British city centers are turning into virtual no-go areas on weekend nights by gangs of drunken youths roaming the streets.

Alcohol-related violence accounts for 44 percent of all violent crime in Britain, officials say. And excessive drinking accounts for seven out 10 people admitted to hospital on weekend nights.

Binge-drinking is a hugely popular pastime for young Britons of all classes, consisting of downing large amounts of alcohol before being thrown out of pubs at the 11 pm standard closing time.

The new campaign will focus on those who sell alcohol to under-18s, bars and clubs which promote irresponsible and rowdy behavior, and drunken youths who cause violence on weekend nights.

Youngsters aged under 18 will be sent in to buy goods from premises and catch offending businesses, police said.

Drunkards will have to pay an on-the-spot penalty of ?40, while "rowdy" establishments will be "named and shamed" and shut down for 24 hours.

In more serious cases, the police will take away the alcohol licence of the establishment whose clients cause disturbances, even after they leave the pub.

Seventy-seven areas in England and Wales are being targeted in the eight-week crackdown, which is a joint initiative between the police and government.

After the initial period the government plans to assess the results before conducting more such operations in its bid to rein in Britain's youth.

Many commentators however believe the binge-drinking problem could get worse when opening hours are relaxed next year, a move that comes after decades of debate on the 11pm closing time that was imposed during World War I.

But a culture ministry spokeswoman said Thursday that staggered closing times will help "prevent the violence and disorder that can arise from large numbers of people pouring out of pubs and clubs on to the streets at the same time, competing for the same services."

The government may also impose minimum prices for alcohol in a bid to crack down on sales campaigns by drink companies that see booze prices slashed.

It could also tackle so-called "happy hours" in pubs that some say encourage young people to drink cheap booze more quickly during set hours.

Alcohol consumption is increasingly steadily among Britons, particularly among women. But Britain ranks only in 12th position in European booze consumption tables.

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