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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 18:20 GMT 19:20 UK
Alcohol the 'new British disease'
Man slumped on the ground
Alcohol is connected to 70% of late night hospital admissions
Tony Blair has warned that unless more is done to combat binge drinking, the alcohol industry may be forced to pay for dealing with drunken behaviour.

He says alcohol abuse is fast becoming the "new British disease".

A new social responsibility scheme could cover some of the costs of policing Britain's towns and cities.

Mr Blair said ministers were trying to give people freedom to enjoy sensible drinking, but the police the power to deal with alcohol related crime.

As a society we have to make sure that this form of what we often call binge drinking, doesn't become a British disease
Tony Blair

The prime minister was making his first major speech on the subject since the government published its alcohol reduction strategy.

"Millions of people drink alcohol responsibly every day and no-one wants to stop the pleasure, but there is a clear and growing problem on our town and city centres up and down the country on Friday and Saturday nights," he said.

"At a time when overall crime is falling, alcohol related violent crime is actually rising.

"As a society we have to make sure that this form of what we often call binge drinking, doesn't become a British disease."

Pub closures

Mr Blair said the government was working with the industry on the development of a social responsibility scheme "which may include some financial contribution to the cost of policing our town centres and tackling some of the costs of alcohol misuse".

It could be used to pay for additional community support officers, bus services or street cleaning.

British Crime Survey
44% of victims of violence thought their attacker was under the influence of alcohol
70% of night admissions to hospital casualty departments at weekends are linked to drinking

The police have already been given new powers to close down pubs, give local residents a greater say in licensing decisions where there are problems, and the use of fixed penalty notices.

"If the police need further powers, then we will look at what more needs to be done. There should be safe and enjoyable drinking for the majority, but zero tolerance of the anti-social minority," said Mr Blair.

A survey suggests that 44% of victims of violent crime say their attacker was drunk, while 70% of weekend casualty admissions are alcohol related.

Culture change

Mr Blair told the industry-organised seminar on the National Alcohol Strategy in London that the drinks industry had an important part to play in promoting responsible drinking.

The one million people employed in the alcohol industry could be "a strong force for cultural change", he said.

Binge drinking is a cultural issue
Richard, Ashford, UK

He welcomed new codes of practice which aim to ensure alcohol advertising does not glamorise binge-drinking.

The Licensing Act, which comes into effect next year, will give police more power to shut down problem premises and will give residents more say in the granting of licenses.

And a police-led programme was launched last month to clamp down on under-age drinking over the summer.

But shadow home secretary David Davis claimed the government's record on alcohol related crime was "truly abysmal".

'PR gimmick'

"The number of alcohol related crimes has reached an all time high, while police powers to tackle underage drinking are barely used," he said.

"The government's alcohol strategy is little more than a panic measure and a PR gimmick."

Paul Burstow, Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "Clamping down on alcohol fuelled rowdiness is welcome but only half the equation.

"The government is ignoring the ticking health time bomb of Britain's binge drinking culture.

"The government needs to think about more than just containment of the problem; it needs to deal with the causes.

"Alcohol abuse amongst teenagers is storing up huge long-term health costs.

"The number of children turning up in hospital because of alcohol is shocking."

The BBC's Mark Easton
"Pollsters have told Mr Blair that binge drinking is a huge problem"

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