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Last Updated: Friday, 19 September, 2003, 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK
UK drinking habits 'entrenched'
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Online

As a report puts the cost of alcohol abuse in the UK at 20bn a year, BBC News Online asks experts why the problem has grown and how it should be tackled.

Ministers argue that new licensing laws will help to ease binge drinking and reduce its anti-social consequences.

Pints of beer
Pubs are an integral part of British culture
The Licensing Act means from 2005, pubs can apply to stay open later - in practice probably until midnight or 2am.

Andrew Mc Neill, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said Friday's report was a "big step forward", but he sharply criticised ministers for making a blanket change to licensing.

Admitting the figures were much higher than previously thought, he told BBC News Online: "We have a very entrenched culture of intoxication."

People as old as their late 20s and early 30s felt they had a right to get "smashed" and the young people were following their example, he said.

It's very optimistic to think that by importing Italian licensing laws we will import an Italian-style drinking culture
Andrew McNeill
Institute of Alcohol Studies
To compound the problem, town and city centres were set up to service this drinking culture, Mr McNeill added.

"There's a stark contradiction between what the government hopes to achieve in its alcohol strategy and what they have already done with the licensing bill and the onset of 24-hour drinking."

He condemned the argument that relaxed licensing laws would help as "nonsense", because there was no evidence to suggest it had done so in London's West End, or in Australia and New Zealand.

He urged the government to "democratise" the way it decides to proceed from here, by consulting with people at grass-roots level, such as residents and crime and disorder partnerships.

"Given the scale of the problem, the government will have to engage in a coherent and sustained way over a long period - there's no magic wand here," he said.

Binge drinking can be very dangerous to the body and can lead to long-term abuse
Marcelle Smith
Alcohol Recovery Project
Other areas to look at include alcohol advertising, the management of licensed outlets and trying to make town centres more inclusive at night, he added.

Marcelle Smith is tenancy support and outreach services manager at Alcohol Recovery Project in London.

She works with people who have alcohol or drugs problem which threaten their council homes.

Ms Smith wants to see more community support on council estates to give better detox and rehabilitation services and an effort to address issues such as poverty and unemployment in deprived areas.

Domestic violence

She told BBC News Online: "The concentration is around drugs because of the crime figures, but people who use drugs also top up their habits with alcohol."

She has seen first-hand the impact alcohol misuse can have on families - even meaning that children are taken into care.

"For some people, their substance misuse takes precedence over looking after their children and can lead to violence in the home.

The Licensing Act will help to create a more civilised late night culture
Department of Culture, Media and Support
"Children may miss school to look after their parents or feel socially isolated because they feel they cannot bring friends home."

Mr McNeill said the UK's problems were shared with other north Europeans and in contrast to the Mediterranean countries.

"We have been different for 2,000 years because of a completely different cultural tradition growing up around alcohol.

"On the continent, wine is seen as part of your diet, but we have developed a beer and in some places a whiskey culture separately."

This has been strengthened by habits such as buying rounds and standing at the bar -"vertical drinking".

A spokeswoman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport told BBC News Online the new laws would create a more "civilised" late night culture and strengthen powers to clamp down on disorder.

She said there would be stronger protection to local residents and better awareness by licensees about their responsibilities.

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