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Tuesday, 17 July, 2001, 10:16 GMT 11:16 UK
Time called on boozing?
No booze
In a culture where binge drinking is widely tolerated, the temperance movement is trying to stage something of a comeback. But is abstinence a message we want to hear?

Could you swear off the booze - and stick with it?

Sugar and spiked: That's what alcopops are made of
It's a pledge the British National Temperance League would like students to consider, instead of succumbing to the lure of cigarettes and alcopops.

The league is keen to win over more under-30s, who at present, account for just a quarter of the 100-odd members.

Administrative director Barbara Briggs says: "We need to attract more young people because our membership is getting more elderly and literally dying off.

"But it takes time to get them involved, and for them to make a commitment to a drug-free lifestyle."

The younger recruits generally join after volunteering to help out on league events such as camps for under-privileged children and alcohol-free bars at school dances. Signing up means swearing off all types of drugs, cigarettes included.

Booze refuseniks

It's all a far cry from the late 19th Century, when the temperance league was one of the biggest mass movements in the UK's history.

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At the time, about one in 10 people had sworn off alcohol.

The movement was founded in 1832 in Preston - the "Jerusalem of the teetotal movement" - by weaver Joseph Livesey, who railed against the evils of gin dens and beer houses.

"At its height, between 1876 and 1890, the monthly bulletin went to more than 30,000 people, all of whom would have taken the pledge," Mrs Briggs says.

"Today, we send it out quarterly to 1,000 people - members, teachers, youth workers - and we think that's good."

Doing it for the kids

The league has already sent more than 25,000 primary schools a free kit outlining the joys of a drink-'n'-drugs-free lifestyle, and a similar pack will go to secondary schools later this year.

BNTL leaflet
The kit went free to 25,000 primary schools
"We redesigned it to fit in with the national curriculum - it's government strategy to get the message across to children early," Mrs Briggs says.

In an attempt to modernise a movement that was at its height more than a century ago, the league has revamped its pledge to allow members to choose how long they want to stay intoxicant-free.

An abstainer may opt for a month, a year, or 40 years, depending on their circumstances.

Drinking age

But surely those promoting abstinence face an uphill battle. Not only do teenagers face peer pressure, the nation as a whole is geared to an "11 o'clock swill" drinking culture.

A nation of drinkers
British teenagers are the master binge drinkers of Europe. According to a recent survey by the Alcohol and Health Research Centre, a quarter of 15 and 16-year-olds admit to getting drunk three or more times a month.

And an increasing number of adults are drinking more than the recommended amounts of alcohol.

But by far the biggest change is in what we drink, rather than how much. Wine and alcopops are fast supplanting the traditional pint as favoured tipples.

All or nothing

So surely an abstinence pledge is a pretty big commitment. Wouldn't it be more realistic to encourage moderation and European drinking habits instead?

Where's that drink taking you?
"We encourage temperance in the sense of not over-doing it - we want young people to be aware of the pitfalls," says Mrs Briggs.

After all, one of Europe's early temperance leagues was a group of Germans in the 16th Century who pledged to limit themselves to just seven glasses of wine a meal. These were the days, of course, when water wasn't necessarily safe to drink.

Then there are the recently discovered and much-vaunted health benefits of supping on a glass or two of red wine.

Which just goes to show, temperance may well be in the eye of the beholder.

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