Sobering reforms for binge drinking Britain

Europe's biggest binge drinker spends £20bn a year on an epidemic of health, crime and social problems relating to alcohol. Its government says it's got a plan, but is it realistic?

A UK Government report in 2003 found that Britons are the worst binge drinkers in Europe. Consequently, a new plan has been implemented to confront and prevent the country’s drink problem.
Britain’s essentially “immature” attitude to alcohol is being blamed for binge drinking, while the rest of Europe is being held up as a model for a restrained approach towards alcohol.

A spokesperson for the national agency on alcohol misuse, Alcohol Concern, claims the root of the problem in Britain is in embedded attitudes.

“In the UK we have a binge drinking culture where drinking to get drunk is socially acceptable,” they said.

Recent figures seem to support this claim.

In the UK, the average person spends £1,272 annually on alcohol, compared to £1,026 in France and £566 in Germany.

Binge drinking, classed as drinking more than half of the recommended weekly units in one night, accounts for 40 per cent of all drinking occasions by men, and 22 per cent by women.

However, whilst the alcohol unit system is medically-based, the number of officially “recommended units” per week seem pitifully low.

Under these guides, three glasses of wine for women or four pints of beer for men is enough to take Britons into the realm of binge drinking.

“The government needs to open its eyes,” a student at Southampton University’s student union bar said. “Lots of people drink more than that”.

This comment can ring especially true for students, who despite their drinking habits, are not generally perceived as being today’s problem drinkers.

Critics have condemned the alcoholic drinks industry for focusing on younger drinkers.

“Too much investment has been made in large, theme bars in town centres aimed at the lucrative youth market” says Mike Benner of the consumer group, The Campaign for Real Ale.

If young people continue to be targeted in this way, there seems to be little hope for a change in attitudes.

Last month saw the launch of a new plan to combat Britain’s alcohol problem.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Government Strategy Unit aims to curb excessive drinking while allowing people to continue to enjoy themselves.

Both the Home Office and Department of Health are responsible for the Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy which hopes to tackle alcohol related disorder, clamp down on irresponsible promotion and provide more information about alcohol misuse.

The importance of making informed decisions over alcohol cannot be underestimated and as such both departments face a mammoth task.

The Minister of State for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety, Hazel Blears, says a co-ordinated approach will be key to meeting the challenge.

“In many areas the police, local councils and the drinks industry are already working together to combat problems such as underage drinking, anti-social behaviour and drink-fuelled violence,” she said.

With fixed penalty fines of £60 being introduced, authorities hope to mount a crackdown on drunken behaviour. Police will also be able to shut down premises that regularly attract trouble.

But changes in Britain’s strict licensing laws due to come in next year will ensure pubs and nightclubs are entitled to remain open 24 hours a day and could pose problems for this plan.

With such an ingrained culture of heavy drinking, 24-hour opening may simply lead to non-stop drinking.

Police fear longer opening hours will encourage a rise in violence and will stretch their already limited resources to breaking point.

According to one section of a forthcoming Metropolitan Police report, recently quoted in a national newspaper: “With the drinking culture that is firmly entrenched in the country, the relaxation in the permitted hours will for the foreseeable future, fuel this culture.

” At present, 40 per cent of violent crime; 78 per cent of assaults and 88 per cent of criminal damage is committed under the influence of alcohol.

Supporters of 24-hour opening argue the overhaul will create a more relaxed and European-style culture which is less obsessed with drinking to get drunk.

Others believe claims of binge drinking rising in the UK are at odds with reality.

Researchers at Datamonitor claim in an April report that by 2008 the average Briton will consume just 110 litres of alcohol a year compared to the current 174 litres.

They suggest an increase in health awareness and an aging population may be reasons for this decrease.

In addition they say that only a small minority in Britain actually binge drink.

Meanwhile, the government’s own contradictory policies are sending a mixed message to the public.

On one hand they are telling people to limit their drinking for health and social reasons, yet they are also encouraging drinking over longer periods of time.

The staggered introduction of these measures may be beneficial but only if the Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy is a success.

In the past month there has been little to suggest that a plan is in place to combat excessive drinking, but whatever the strategy is, it must succeed if the public is to be coaxed out of its heavy-drinking culture.