Lifestyle & Belief

Can Britain avert a binge-drinking crisis?

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WATFORD, U.K. — It’s 10 p.m. on a warm Friday. Inside Yates’s Wine Lodge, the lights are low and the house music pounds as Michelle Daniels lines up four Jagerbombs for her small group of friends. The women swig their drinks — shots of the German liqueur Jagermeister dunked into reeking glasses of the caffeinated Red Bull energy drink — and grimace with every mouthful.

“It does the job,” says Daniels, a 21-year-old receptionist, who is helping her friend Frances celebrate her birthday with a night out along the teeming strip of bars in the center of Watford. By “the job,” Daniels means getting drunk as cheaply as possible on bargain 2.50-pound cocktails ($3.60), before heading out to more expensive venues.

Daniels is not alone. It’s a typical Friday night in Watford, north of London, and gaggles of young drinkers swarm the main street, in and out of bars advertising cut-price cocktails and beers. There’s a boisterously good-natured atmosphere, but the heavy security at every door and an obvious police presence speak of a town used to the fallout from industrial levels of alcohol consumption.

This — and it’s unfair to single Watford out from the hundreds of other U.K. main streets that regularly play host to scenes of bacchanalian excess — is what headline writers call “binge-drinking Britain.” A blithely accepted culture of accelerated alcohol consumption, sometimes to the point of oblivion, that is unmatched by few other counties in Europe.

Now, as the country prepares for the obligatory drinking marathon that accompanies the World Cup every four years, new measures are being urged amid warnings that alcohol consumption, not just among youngsters but all corners of society, is reaching crisis levels.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence, an influential body that advises the state-funded National Health Service (NHS), has called for minimum alcohol pricing, a move that would — to a certain extent — call time on increasingly belligerent efforts by vendors to undercut their rivals.

Other measures it wants to see introduced include a ban on alcohol advertising, restrictions on so-called “booze cruises” — where travelers bring bulk quantities of cheap wine, beer and liquor back from Europe — and compulsory questioning of all NHS patients over their drinking habits.

NICE says 8,000 people die from alcohol-related conditions annually in the U.K., a figure that has doubled over the past 16 years, and drinking now costs the NHS 2.7 billion pounds annually. A recent study by health watchdog Drinkaware estimates 520,000 British people every day go to work with a hangover, a figure expected to increase during the World Cup, particularly if the English team triumphs.

“Alcohol is much more affordable now than it ever has been, and the price people pay does not reflect the cost of the health and social harms that arise,” said health economist Anne Ludbrook, who helped draw up the NICE recommendations. “When it is sold at a very low price, people often buy and then consume more than they otherwise would have done. It is a dangerous pattern which many people have unknowingly fallen into.”

Measures to raise the price of alcoholic beverages — already being considered by the Scottish Parliament — would certainly effect change in Britain. The country’s liquid love affair is part of the landscape in Watford and other towns where chain shops such as the prosaically named “Bargain Booze” and bars offering 1 pound-a-drink discounts thrive. But there are doubts they would end binge drinking.

There have been successive attempts to slake Britain’s rapid-fire thirst for the hard stuff, but none have succeeded. Most notably, a 2005 relaxation of rigid 11 p.m. bar closing times failed to realize the dream of Britain as a leisurely cafe culture. Drinks continue to be thrown back with grim gusto despite the later hour of last call.

Says the Portman Group, which represents leading drinks manufacturers in the U.K. (including Budweiser producer Anheuser-Busch InBev), minimum pricing would meet a similar fate, merely affecting “non-problem” drinkers. Heavy users, the group says, will seek “alternative ways of maintaining consumption.”

The newly elected Conservative-led government has also expressed doubts despite making a ban on below-cost alcohol sales and greater police powers to deal with alcohol-related crime key elements in last month’s Queen’s Speech, which outlines parliamentary plans for the year ahead.

Back in Watford, where up to 10,000 people can converge on bars such as Rehab and the Kandi Klub, it’s a relatively quiet night for police, with only a handful of public order incidents, according to Sergeant Ian Smith, manager of the town’s Community Safety Unit.

Smith, who says he has “grave concerns” about a recent increase in town center violence, insists minimum pricing must target supermarkets rather than bars to combat the existing culture of “pre-loading” with cheap alcohol at home in a deliberate effort to get drunk.

“Door staff regularly pick up dozens of bottles from people — women as well as men,” he said. “They often hear the clink of glass in the bags as they get out of taxis with beer, wine and occasionally spirits.”

The drinkers themselves offer a surprisingly sober assessment of the proposals over the latest round of cocktails.

“It won’t work,” said Lee Partridge, a local radio presenter who at 39 is one of the more mature drinkers in Yates'. “Young people will still buy the same amount of alcohol; they’ll just buy it from supermarkets and get drunk at home before they come out into town.”

His friend John Bull, 44, said minimum pricing would in fact drive more revelers into towns such as Watford, as local pubs (already closing at a rate of 40 per week) are forced out of business by measures that will leave the big binge-drinking venues unscathed.

“It won’t change a thing in Watford. It’s more organized here than anywhere else. It’s like Ibiza,” he said, making the rather unlikely comparison between a post-industrial English town and a Mediterranean vacation island. However it seems not entirely misplaced on a warm summer evening — particularly after a few drinks.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to add comment from the Watford police.