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Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 12:23 GMT
Last orders: Our drinking culture

British teenagers out-drink their European counterparts, despite the UK's tough restrictions on alcohol consumption. So what's wrong with our drinking culture?

Young Britons may not quaff as much alcohol as many of their European contemporaries, but they certainly seem to make up for it at the weekend.

They are masters of binge drinking, suggests a report from the Alcohol and Health Research Centre. A quarter of 15 and 16-year-olds admit to getting drunk three or more times a month.

A pint
Alcohol, go easy
The report comes only days after a 16-year-old girl from Essex died of alcohol poisoning and just 24 hours after another study highlighted the effects of alcohol abuse by young British men..

The research, published on Monday by the World Health Organisation, found one in eight deaths among young men in the UK is caused by alcohol abuse.

While European tots are given wine with meals as soon as they are weaned - or so the anecdote goes - British children grow up eager to emulate the pub drinking habits of their elders.

Despite our growing appreciation of wine - and the drink's link to food - we are still a nation that does most of its glass raising in a hectic burst before closing time.

The "11 o'clock swill" forced by pub closing times in England and Wales is a significant part daily life, as many visitors from the Continent comment.

Drink up

The same visitors are also often mystified by the empty midnight streets, the love of the late-night curry, the taxi-rank brawl, and Friday night TV scheduling.

There is much more to last orders culture in Britain then familiarity with the phrase: "Come on, haven't you got homes to go to?"

European licensing laws
France: licensing is complex, but bars generally close about 0130, and up to about 0300 in Paris.
Spain: in theory regulated by regional councils, but in practice virtually 24-hour.
Germany: laws vary from state to state but most city bars stay open after midnight.
Last orders engenders almost ritualistic behaviour among pub drinkers, aimed at squeezing a final drink from the landlord.

Last year, amid debate to relax licensing laws, former barmaid Rowan Coleman explained the sort of ploys used by drinkers preparing for their end-of-evening binge.

"People will buy two pints at 10.45, even if they can't by that stage drink half a pint. If it's 11.01 they say they've been waiting at the bar and you haven't seen them, or that your clock's wrong.

"They try and hide from you as well. If you've got a garden they'll go and hide in the garden."

Most experts say 24-hour licensing would have to be accompanied by all-night transport. That would see off another post-pub ritual - the dash for the last bus home.

Fighting for a cab

Those who drag their feet inevitably wind up at the taxi rank, where a keen bid to catch a cab can quickly degenerate into a drunken brawl with another last orders refugee.

If pubs don't close at 11, there's no one fighting on the way to the club between 11 and 12. And if there's no one fighting, there's no one in casualty. And if there's no one in casualty, nurses will lose their jobs. And before you know it we'll have nurses begging on the streets. And all because people wanted a late-night drink

Comedian and 'pub landlord' Al Murray

In West Yorkshire, police list taxi ranks alongside nightclub entrances and takeaways as top spots for late-night fighting.

So would relaxing licensing hours put a stop to British binge drinking? Probably not said veteran of a thousand pulled pints, Rowan Coleman.

"Think how ratted people get by 11.30 and then think what they'll be like at 12.30.

"It will still be all about drinking as much as you can as fast as you can, and not even thinking about what it tastes like.

"British people just don't know how to drink."

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See also:

20 Feb 01 | Health
UK children top drugs league
10 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Time looms for pub laws
12 May 00 | Health
Britain's big booze binge
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