Miércoles 29 de Agosto de 2007, Ip nº 205

Party's over? Curbs planned on cheap drink to beat binge culture
Por Alan Travis

Ministers are close to a decision to crack down on the promotional sale of cheap alcohol and happy-hour discounts as part of a drive to tackle Britain's binge-drinking culture.
They are also to launch a public education campaign with new guidance to parents and young people to challenge the idea that "drinking to get drunk" in public places is in any way socially acceptable.

An urgent review is under way by the Home Office and the Department of Health into how, and in what circumstances, the price of alcohol, including discounting, advertising and other forms of promotion, drives the overall consumption of alcohol and problem drinking in particular.

The disclosure follows a call yesterday from Peter Fahy, the chief constable of Cheshire, for the legal age to buy alcohol to be raised from 18 to 21, for the price of stronger beers to be increased and for it to be made easier to declare a whole town or city a "no-drinking area".

"Alcohol is too cheap and too readily available and is too strong. Young people cannot handle it," said Mr Fahy after three boys appeared in court charged with the murder of Gary Newlove on a street in Warrington.

The urgent review of alcohol laws comes as new data shows that Britain now has one of the highest rates of youth drunkenness across Europe, with 24% of 15-year-olds saying they have been drunk 10 times or more in the past year. The UK ranks as the third highest out of 35 European countries in this particular league table.

The Home Office says most children will have tried alcohol by the time they are 13 but those who drink are as likely to do so with their parents as their friends.

By the time they are 15, almost 90% of Britain's teenagers will have had a drink. Over a third of all 15-year-olds say they drink every week, usually with their friends, either at someone else's home or in unsupervised outdoor locations such as parks and estates, which the police say leads to the most harm.

As for 16- to 17-year-olds, many are increasingly drinking cheap alcohol at home, often bought in special promotions from supermarkets, late night shops or petrol stations, before going out at night into bars and clubs.

While it is open to debate whether alcohol is generally getting cheaper in real terms because of annual increases in taxation, ministers say they are aware of the growing concern about the practice of "deep discounting" - selling alcohol often below cost price to encourage customers to enter a club or pub.

Industry voluntary codes are already supposed to discourage promotions which encourage people to drink more, but so far they have had little effect despite MPs demanding action as long ago as 1999. Happy hours are still being advertised and promotions such as "£10 entry, drinks free all night" or "All drinks £1 all night; drink the bar dry" are still widespread.

While offers such as "free drinks for five minutes after an England goal" may rarely pay out these days, there are plenty of takers for "free vodka between 10pm and 11pm".

Sandra Gidley, the Liberal Democrat MP who introduced a private members' bill last month to regulate drink prices, says supermarkets regularly sell alcohol at below cost or at a deep discount as a loss leader to attract customers - many of them heavy drinkers or under-age.

In Scotland, the justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, has promised a similar crackdown after he discovered a local supermarket selling 60 bottles or cans of beer for £20 - cheaper than bottled water.

The Home Office minister Meg Hillier yesterday said she did not want to pre-empt the outcome of the review but confirmed that the government was in fresh talks with the drinks industry about pricing policy. While ministers say that sales promotions are a legitimate business tool they also believe retailers must play their part in ensuring sales of discounted alcohol do not encourage irresponsible drinking.

A renewed drive against sales to under-18s is also being contemplated, with the possibility of fixed penalty fines for sales staff who regularly serve under-age customers.

A further punitive increase in taxes on alcohol has been ruled out by Gordon Brown, as the then health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, discovered last autumn when she proposed increasing the levy on alcopops.

Ministers and local authorities yesterday also set themselves against further blanket bans on drinking in public places. Sir Simon Milton, chairman of the Local Government Association, said hundreds of controlled drinking zones had already been set up around the country in recognised problem areas.

"It would be absurd to penalise an entire nation because a mindless minority of out of control individuals decides to operate outside the law."

  16/08/2007. The Guardian.