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  Inside Out - South West of England: Monday January 26, 2004

DRINKING CULTURE

Pint of beer
Open all hours - coming soon?

Cheap alcohol is leading to an increase in binge drinking and drunkenness in the South West. Inside Out asks whether plans to extend pub drinking hours will escalate the problem further.

We're a nation of drinkers, renowned for our capacity to consume large amounts of alcohol.

But for some South West cities like Plymouth, the demon drink is becoming a growing problem, and some critics argue that it is about to get much worse.

Changes in Britain's drink laws will enable bars to open all hours when current proposals take effect next year.

Inside Out investigates how the new drinking culture is affecting drinkers and the night life in our towns.

Drink, drink, drink...

At present a big night out on the town ends when bar staff in pubs and clubs call last orders at either 11pm or 2am.

Pint of lager
Boosting the 24 hour economy? Pubs could be open all hours from 2005

But the old tradition of "drinking up time" could be a thing of the past when the Government introduces new licensing laws in 2005 enabling bars to open all day, if they wish.

For the drinkers this might seem like heaven, involving all day drinking, endless happy hours, and no late rush for last orders!

But for the police and residents living near pubs, it could spell problems, fuelled by the recent growth in pubs offering cheap booze.

Cheap drinks revolution

We all like a couple of pints but when two drinks turn into twelve, it's time to ask if the cheap drinks revolution has gone too far.

It's now common for bars to offer cheap happy hour drinks, two drinks for the price of one, and trebles for doubles.

Crowded bar
Speed drinking - the new way of getting drunk fast

Episodes of disorder and anti-social behaviour are often seen as part of the excitement of getting drunk by binge drinkers enjoying a night out.

Ken Locke is the owner of Jesters fun pub in Plymouth, and he believes that drinkers are getting drunker quicker than they ever before.

For £20 a drinker can probably get fourteen drinks whereas five years ago, it would have been four or five.

He's concerned that an extension of drinking hours will mean that drunks will arrive at his pub at 11pm, causing trouble.

"The problem with it is cheap booze. To put it bluntly, there's too many establishments chasing too small a market".

Your good health?

Binge drinking is also taking its toll on our health. It's particularly dangerous because it involves the consumption of large amounts of alcohol in a single session.

Side effects can include increased risk of liver disease, cancer, heart disease, liver damage, strokes, and pancreatitis.

The recommended weekly limit is a maximum of 14 units of alcohol for women, and 21 for men.

"Speed drinking bars", group drinking and the popularity of shooters and shots have all added to the speed with which drinkers get drunk.

To exacerbate the problem, modern alcohol products and their marketing are designed to encourage and exploit the hedonistic binge drinking culture.

It shows on the streets - there are 13,000 drunken scraps outside bars each week in this country.

Continental culture?

Supporters of all day opening times argue that the binge drinking culture of the English can be changed if we become more “continental”.

Drinking Fact File

* 13,000 violent incidents take place in and around bars and pubs each week in this country.

* 88% of criminal damage is caused by alcohol.

* 150,000 people are hospitalised due to alcohol.

* The cost of alcohol related crime is £7.3 billion a year.

* Tax revenue from alcohol amounts to £9 billion every year.

* The British Crime Survey shows that 47 per cent of violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol.

By spreading out the drinking day, drinkers will be less inclined to cram in as many drinks as possible into just a few hours.

Supporters of the new licensing bill argue that it will curb binge drinking, create a more family-friendly drinking culture, and give police greater powers to combat disorder around bars.

But are we ready for a culture shock and a change in our drinking patterns?

Binge drinking accounts for a higher proportion of drinking trips in the UK than in any other European country.

Young people in Britain are the heaviest drinkers in Europe, and they're more likely to get drunk compared with their European neighbours.

Drink, drink and drink...

In France and Spain people tend to drink for pleasure and are less inclined to binge out.

English drinking culture is much more characteristic of Northern Europe, with its high levels of violence and social problems associated with binge drinking.

The Government hopes to create a more "civilised" culture in pubs and clubs. But critics claim that there is no convincing evidence that extended opening hours will reduce binge drinking.

They claim that young people will continue to get drunk late into the night, exacerbating crime and disorder problems.

Policing the problem

John Stalker, former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, says that we aren't ready to make the leap to "continental" drinking culture yet.

Police van
Saturday night on the town - police prepare for rowdy drinkers

He visited 21 cities, including Plymouth, and found that all were plagued with drunken behaviour.

Police in many areas told him that they were not encouraged to arrest people because of the administrative expense.

Stalker says that police seemed too tolerant of bad behaviour and didn’t step in before trouble started - unlike in his day.

He says that the streets are now controlled more by the door men, rather than the police.

Devon and Cornwall Police acknowledge that their job would be harder without the door men, but say that one of their priorities is cracking down on drunken crime.

Violence in the upmarket, regenerated Barbican area of Plymouth is growing fastest. It has risen by 25 per cent in six months.

The Police are keen to stamp it out. Fifteen to twenty officers are put on duty to deal with city centre violence each weekend.

Open all hours?

So what can be done to tackle the problem of binge drinking in our towns?

The new licensing legislation is a huge gamble for the Government.

It will be hard to turn back the clock if it doesn't deliver a reduction in disorder and drunkenness.

A recent Home Offices study goes further, and suggests an array of measures which could help reduce drunken behaviour including:

  • No happy hours and cheap drinks promotions
  • Refusal of alcohol to already intoxicated customers
  • Pubwatch schemes and the use of CCTV cameras.
  • Staggered closing times and heavier penalties for the breach of licensing laws.
  • Alcohol education schemes.
  • Well-designed bars with well trained door staff and restrictions on overcrowding.

It will take a long time to determine whether the new laws help to reduce binge drinking and change our old-fashioned drinking habits.

John Stalker believes that we need a cultural change before we can call time on heavy drinking in the South West's towns and cities.

"I'm for 24 hour drinking if society is ready for it... Perhaps there should be a cultural change," says John Stalker.

In his opinion we're still a long way behind the good intentions of social reformers.

See also ...

Inside Out: South West
More great stories

On bbc.co.uk
BBC: Drinking Laws
BBC: Drinking law shake-up
BBC Health: Alcohol Addictions Guide
BBC: Measuring Units

On the rest of the web
Home Office
Institute of Alcohol Studies
Alcohol Concern
Alcohol Education and Research Council
CAMRA

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Chris Sherwood
In my opinion, binge drinking is caused by the present system of closing the majority of pubs at 11.00 pm - people simply try to cram a large amount of booze into a short space of time.

By introducing more continental style drinking laws, patrons can relax knowing they are not going to be thrown out onto the streets at an unsociable hour.

Sally Angell
Staggering leaving times may help the problem of pubs in rural communities, although it does not seem to have been considered.

I live in New Polzeath where the only public bar in the village is open only during the summer season. The later opening will almost certainly have a negative effect on residents who already have to put up with rowdiness from drunken young (and sometimes older people) throughout the evening and well into the small hours.

Allowing the bars in Poleath and New Polzeath to stay open all night will, in my opinion exacerbate the problem. Our quality of life in the summer months is already adversely effected without making the problem worse. We are not all willing hosts to the badly behaved and rowdy minority of holiday makers. The law may well deter families from coming here on holiday altogether.

Alan Carter
In the Inside Out programme on the 26th Jan, Sam Smith asked a police sergeant, "why is this [drunken] behaviour acceptable at midnight but unacceptable at midday?" The answer was a shrug of the shoulders and a mumbled line about, "a culture thing." That is not the answer, it's the problem!

The government can preach all it likes about crime figures being down and our streets being safe. Well, try walking down any city centre street after 8 on a Friday or Saturday night. As John Stalker says, we need a change of culture.

Lastly, why do girls behave so badly?

Brian Stott
Twenty-four hours drink laws arent a good idea. When I was a teenager the clubs all shut at one o'clock in the morning and every one was at home at three. Nowadays the clubs shut about three or four then there is a cooling off period before everyone drifts home.

Twenty-four hour laws are going to put lives at risk its going to be a 24 hour drink and brawl frenzy.



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