Fri, Jul 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Binge drinkers worry British as social costs rise

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , London

Britain has always been a place where people enjoy a drink or two (or more) at the local pub, and where football hooligans and so-called lager louts represent the public face of overconsumption. But lately the country's growing inability to hold its liquor has taken on the scope of a national crisis.

Even Prime Minister Tony Blair is worried. "There is a clear and growing problem in our town and city centers up and down the country on Friday and Saturday nights," said Blair, whose son, then 16, was found vomiting and incoherent on a London street four years ago after an evening of drinking. "As a society we have to make sure that this form of what we often call binge drinking doesn't become the new British disease."

By some measures, it already has. Cheaper and more available alcohol, changing drinking patterns, a steep increase in drinking among young women and a decline in old standards of civility have turned what was once a manageable part of life into a problem that costs society, according to government estimates, $35 billion a year.

The government, saying it wanted to make problem spots in city centers safe for the sober on weekends, recently presented an ambitious plan to tackle the violence and mayhem that follow when too many people drink too much in too small an area. Among its proposals are granting wider powers to the authorities to control hooliganism, imposing greater penalties for drunken behavior and forcing pubs and clubs to help pay for extra police officers.

But the most widely debated change is to allow some pubs to stay open past the current closing time of 11:20p.m., starting in the autumn of next year. The change, allowing the pubs to set their own closing times with approval, is meant to dissuade rushed binge drinking at "last orders."

Some have their doubts and worry that more time at the pub will simply allow people to drink more.

"It's hard to see how it could help," said Michael Marmot, a public health professor at Uni-versity College London. "The evidence suggests that the longer the opening hours and the easier it is to have access to alcohol, the higher the consumption."

Marmot presided over a recent report from the Academy of Medical Sciences that urged the government to work to reduce alcohol consumption in general. Britain has historically been a hard-drinking place, but the current trends are alarming.

In contrast to many countries in Western Europe where drinking has declined, in Britain, where the minimum legal drinking age is 18, people are starting younger and drinking more. Although some researchers say the figures are actually higher, government statistics show that Britons on average drank the equivalent of 8.6 liters of pure alcohol each in 2001, nearly double the rate of 1951. That translates into more than 86 bottles of wine, or 350 pints of beer. Young women on average now consume about 12.6 drinks a week, an increase of 66 percent since 1992.

While people in a number of countries still drink more over-all, Britons (and the Irish) are likelier to go on drinking binges, consuming five, six, seven or more drinks in a single session. "Binge drinking is now so routine that young people find it difficult to explain why they do it," a recent Home Office report said.

The related costs are ballooning. While crime overall has declined, alcohol-related crime is increasing: in 1999, half of the 2.4 million violent crimes reported were linked to alcohol misuse. On weekends, 70 percent of emergency room patients are involved in incidents related to alcohol. Deaths from liver disease in England, a crucial indicator of alcohol-related harm, have shot up more than fivefold since 1950.

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