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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 January 2005, 10:22 GMT
Whetting the appetite
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Licensing laws will soon be relaxed, prompting fears about increased binge drinking. But is alcohol to blame or is it a matter of taste?

When 24-hour licensing comes into force later this year opponents of the scheme are bracing themselves for the nation's High Streets to become no-go areas at night.

But while they are convinced the relaxation of opening hours can only lead to more binge drinking, others argue people's uneducated palates are the problem - not their alcohol consumption.

"Nowadays 22-year-olds are drinking flavours no more challenging than what they were drinking at 12, it's alcoholic fruit juice," says Peter Haydon, author of Beer and Britannia: An Inebriated History of Britain.

A lot of what people drink today is muck
Beer writer Peter Haydon

"Most have been raised on a diet of processed food and sweet flavours, unlike older generations. They haven't made the transition to more complicated tastes, something drinks companies have exploited. That has a bigger influence on binge drinking than longer open hours ever will.

"Drinking alcohol is not a challenging experience for young people any more. I remember my first taste of alcohol was disgusting because it was beer. But as I grew up I learnt to appreciate the taste and got into the more complicated flavours of real ale and wines."

He argues that linking binge drinking with longer opening hours is disingenuous; it needs to be included in the debate about diet and obesity.

Gin fever

"The British are big drinkers, it has always been part of our culture," he says. "That is who we are and we shouldn't wring our hands and try to suppress that. We should look at the debate more sensibly and look at what, where and how people are drinking.

"Beer is food, it is nutritional. A lot of what people drink today is muck. If you take away the pressure of the current opening hours people will have more time to consider what they are drinking, will start trading up their drinks and behave more responsibly."

It's something the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) agrees with.

I'm not sure if everyone turned into real ale drinkers overnight the problem would be solved
Nutritionist Gale Kennedy

"Longer opening hours aren't the issue. If you want a drink you can already get it, with supermarkets and local shops open longer," says Iain Loe, Camra's research and information manager.

"Relaxing licensing laws is a sensible move. To tackle binge drinking you need to start by educating youngsters and looking at what they drink and the way those drinks are targeted at them."

History appears to back their arguments. Britons have always drunk, sometimes washing down breakfast, lunch and dinner with ale. But some of the biggest problems with alcohol have come about when beer and wine have been replaced as the drink of choice.

When gin was popularised in the 1700s drunkenness became such a problem the government passed the Gin Act in an attempt to restrict the production and sale of it. By 1727 England was consuming roughly five million gallons of gin a year - quite a feat for a population of only six million.

Damage

"Back in the 1700s beer was safer to drink than water because it was boiled as part of the brewing process," says Haydon.

"There were dire consequences when gin was popularised. Half the nation was drunk."

Nutritionist Gale Kennedy agrees binge drinking needs to be part of the debate on the nation's health, but argues that relaxing licensing laws will not help the problem.

"Binge drinking should be part of the debate about the nation's diet. Just as you need to educate people about what food is good for them, you need to educate them about what they drink and why," she says.

"But until we do that longer opening hours will not help. It is like a red flag to a bull to people who don't understand what damage they are doing to themselves. I can take on board the arguments about taste, and agree some alcohol does have nutritional value, but I'm not sure if everyone turned into real ale drinkers overnight the problem of binge drinking would be solved."




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