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Monday, 8 April, 2002, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
What's wrong with our drinking culture?
A new report highlights the problem of binge drinking among schoolchildren. But it's not simply youthful excess. Experts say there are cultural reasons why the British gulp and others merely sip.

Despite the UK's tough restrictions on alcohol consumption, young Britons are masters of binge drinking.

Up to a quarter of 13 and 14-year-olds say they have "downed" at least five alcoholic drinks in a single session, and 27% of those aged 15 and 16 reported three or more binges in the past month, according to a survey for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Euan Blair, the Prime Minister's son
The likes of Euan Blair and Prince Harry admit binging
The findings echo earlier reports which suggest that British teens are more likely to get drunk - and more often - than many of their European contemporaries. Researchers say this could be down to the different culture surrounding alcohol.

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.

Deadly drink
One in eight deaths among young men in the UK is caused by alcohol abuse
WHO report
The "11 o'clock swill" forced by pub closing times in England and Wales is a significant part of daily life, as many visitors from the Continent comment.

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.

Drink up

There is much more to last orders culture than 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 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.

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.

A drinks advert
Relaxed drinking? Perhaps not in the UK
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."

See also:

08 Apr 02 | Health
Alarm over teenage binge drinking
17 Jul 01 | UK
Time called on boozing?
20 Feb 01 | Health
UK children top drugs league
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