Britain has a drink problem. Even those who never touch a drop have a problem, since getting pissed, tanked, faced, legless, slaughtered, has become virtually the only entertainment in town. If you fancy a meal out, or a film, choose your venue and timing carefully to avoid the vomit, the noise and routine violence that now form the backdrop to urban nightlife. Try not to require emergency hospital attention after midnight, because A&E will be overflowing with the casualties of our drinking culture: 70 per cent of those waiting will be suffering alcohol-related injuries.
Giant "vertical drinking" establishments have replaced cinemas, theatres and other entertainment venues. And the owners of these new, high-volume drinking spaces know how to make sure their customers go on drinking. Drinkers who stand consume more than those who sit down, so take out the chairs and tables and encourage "vertical drinking"; remove all flat surfaces and ledges so that drinkers have to hold on to their drinks; those who talk drink less, so turn up the music. It is far removed from the government's utopian vision of being able to pop out for a relaxing drink and chat, Continental-cafe-style, with friends. But this is the context for the government's determination to see through implementation of the Licensing Act 2003, which, by November, will bring about a nationwide relaxation of drinking hours. Tony Blair may have memories of being unable to get a drink because of "daft" licensing laws; the reality now is that it is difficult not to drink, especially if you are an adolescent.
It could be the foggy thinking and slurred speech traditionally associated with alcohol, but the noises out of Westminster and Whitehall are becoming harder to make sense of. For though the government freely admits that excess drinking costs the economy £20bn a year (in health bills and loss of earnings), and that six million of us routinely binge drink, it is none the less determined to continue with extending licensing hours and even to permit 24-hour opening.
Yet even though it might appear the height of stupidity to increase the availability of drink in a society so evidently unable to handle it, we are far from understanding the causal links between binge drinking, alcohol-related illnesses and licensing hours. France, for example, is free of binge drinking, yet it has more alcohol-related deaths than Britain. However, despite consuming more alcohol, both consumption and deaths are on a downward trajectory there. Here, both are increasing. (In the past five years there has been a sharp rise in alcohol-related deaths, up 18.4 per cent in England and Wales. Some regions have witnessed increases far above the national average: in Yorkshire and Humberside, for example, the rise has been an alarming 46.5 per cent since 2000.)
The government argues forcefully that there is no connection between round-the-clock availability and heavier drinking. Senior judges and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) both think otherwise. Earlier this month, the judges warned the government to expect large increases in rape, domestic violence and serious assaults, noting that their view had not been sought on 24-hour licences. Had we been asked, said the judges, we would have pointed to "the inevitable explosion in alcohol-fuelled violence which would have been the necessary consequence of this relaxation of the licensing regime". Acpo is equally categoric, questioning the government's argument that variations in closing times will lead to less violence. "The assertion that 11pm closing leads to binge drinking is simply not supported by the evidence," says Acpo.
While binge-drinking youth dominates the headlines and colours the debate about licensing hours, it is older drinkers who are killing themselves through over-consumption, as Professor Dick Hobbs of Durham University points out. Though binge drinking is a likely beginning to subsequent alcohol addiction, the two groups have little but alcohol in common and make widely different demands on social policy.
Hobbs believes that binge drinkers have become the "folk devils" of our day. They are noisy, prone to violence and antisocial behaviour such as urinating and vomiting publicly, and nobody wants them at the end of their street. Nobody, that is, except the government. Why is it so keen to accommodate them? According to Hobbs, they perform a vital function. Young city-centre drinkers drive the increasingly important "night economy", worth £1bn a year. They not only drink, they eat and they use transport. Pubs and clubs employ roughly a million people. The govern-ment will do nothing to jeopardise such an important sector.
Liberalising drinking hours was intended to appeal to two target groups: young metropolitan voters (remember the pre-election-day text in 2001 when Labour asked "Cldnt gve a xxxx 4 last ordrs? Thn vte Lbr on thrsday 4 xtra time"?) and important business interests in the food and drink industry, whose coverage of city centres has now reached saturation point and whose only remaining area for expansion is therefore into the small hours of the morning. It is clever politics. But it is dishonest to pretend that the game plan on alcohol consumption is that we should drink less in a more civilised fashion. There is no money to be made by pubs and clubs staying open longer in order for sober cafe-society cosmopolitans to toy with glasses of fine wine. That is why you will find few bars open much past 9pm in genuine cafe society in France or Italy (unless they are catering to fast-drinking British tourists, that is). The real aim is for more of us to drink more.
Meanwhile the debate about whether this is a good or bad thing appears destined to remain a dialogue of the deaf. One side - the modernisers - will not concede that the cafe society they advocate requires a culture of moderation and combining drinking with sitting, talking and eating which simply has not caught on among young drinkers in Britain. The cautious traditionalists - police and judges included - clearly concerned that they are the ones picking up the tab for the drink industry's profits, fail to acknowledge that those determined to drink themselves stupid are already managing to do so rather well within the existing laws.
None the less we should probably prepare for two things: a rise in alcohol-related disease, currently accounting for more than 6,500 deaths a year in England and Wales; and a further increase in alcohol-related violence, responsible for up to 22,000 deaths a year. If these trends continue upwards, the government had better have a good explanation.
And a few things we do know
- 23% of men admit to drinking more than eight units of alcohol in one sitting at least once a week (defined as binge drinking)
- 9% of women drink six units in one sitting (defined as binge drinking
- 21% of men and 12.5% of women drink alcohol on at least five days of the week
- It takes your liver more than one hour to eliminate one unit of alcohol
- A single glass of wine a day equates to 18lb of weight gain in a year
- British people spend approximately £30bn a year on alcohol
- The UK drink-driving limit for alcohol-to-blood ratio is 80mg per 100ml; at 300mg amnesia is likely for the drinking episode and at 400mg-500mg death is possible
- Alcohol features in a third of all divorce petitions in the UK
- Alcohol-related reasons and excuses are responsible for roughly 14 million lost working days in the UK every year