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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 November 2005, 11:19 GMT
Half-empty or half-full?
As 24-hour drinking in pubs looms, stories about Britons' excessive alcohol consumption abound. But what's the truth about how much we drink?

All eyes will be on English and Welsh town centres next Thursday when later opening hours come into force.

Some have warned this moment, tagged an "alcoholic Big Bang", will signal chaos and disorder on the streets. Yet others are saying the impact will be far less dramatic, even negligible. Only time will reveal how our drinking habits may change, but what can we say about them now?

IS ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION INCREASING?

Yes, there has been a long-term increase in the UK's consumption of alcohol per head for 50 years and, according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, we now drink twice as much as we did in 1950.

In young women aged 16-24, the proportion exceeding the sensible weekly limit more than doubled, from 15% in 1988 to 33% in 2003, say government figures.

One Saturday night in Bristol

Although our young people are among the biggest boozers in Europe, overall we still do not drink as much as the French (see last section), but we do so in a different way.

"It's about the pattern of consumption," says Dr Aisha Holloway, chairman of the Nursing Council on Alcohol. "If the French are consuming at a more even consumption level, maybe two or three units every day, then that is better for you than going out and drinking 28 to 30 units at the weekend."

The exact impact of alcohol abuse is hard to measure but a government report in 2003 put the figure at 20bn annually, including the health service, policing and the economy.

ARE YOUNG PEOPLE BINGE DRINKING MORE?

There are difficulties in defining "binge drinking". Drinking to get drunk is one interpretation, but some drunkenness is achieved without intent.

Cricketer Andrew Flintoff
Some occasions deserve a tipple
Twice the daily consumption (eight units for men, six for women) is the most common definition, but does this apply to a day-long or a two-hour session, for a big or small person?

Using the quantity definition, binge drinking seems to diminish with age. It accounts for 40% of all drinking occasions by men and 22% by women, according to Alcohol Concern.

It would be misleading to say it was on the increase across all ages.

Office for National Statistics figures suggest that between 1998 and 2003 it fell among men by 3% and rose among women by 2%. But it is the increase among young people and its visible consequences on the night-time streets that makes the headlines.

ARE THE DEFINITIONS CONTROVERSIAL?

Plenty of people believe the definitions of binge drinking are misleading. They say that just because they enjoy a few glasses of wine or four pints, they should not be categorised with the anti-social drinkers who vomit or brawl in the street.

Dr Aisha Holloway, chairman of the Nursing Council on Alcohol, has some sympathy with this view.

"Perhaps we should stop calling it binge drinking and just educate people about what is healthy consumption and what is going to place you at risk of x, y or z," she says.

"Binge drinking is associated with a type of anti-social behaviour but in truth, people can binge drink at home."

IS CONSUMPTION RELATED TO SUPPLY?

This is the key political question as the relaxed licensing laws come into force.

Setting aside the arguments about public disorder and attempts by the Licensing Bill, which comes into effect next week, to tackle that, the government says later closing hours could eventually reduce consumption by stopping people rushing to finish their drinks by 11pm.

Graph showing increase in alcohol consumption
"This is a committed and coherent effort to promote responsible drinking in this country," says Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

Ministers point to more liberal laws in parts of Europe as evidence of how late licensing can encourage people not to binge.

They could also use their opponents' efforts to help their case. In 1988 the Conservative government was warned that their plans to allow pubs to remain open all day would lead to more drunkenness and more disorder. But alcohol consumption per capita fell every year for five years after the legislation was passed.

Today, opposition politicians and alcohol campaigners believe increased supply simply means more drinking, and say the unique British drinking culture makes comparisons meaningless.

Researchers at the University of the West of England concluded that reforms to relax licensing laws in Australia, Iceland and Ireland increased disorder.

WHAT ARE THE OTHER FACTORS?

People drink because it's fun, but the reasons given for the particularly high levels of drinking by some young people vary depending on who you talk to

Andrew McNeil, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, thinks a major factor in high consumption among young people is the affordability of alcohol, which has increased over the years. Alcohol was 49% more affordable in 2000, than 1978, according to Downing Street's Strategy Unit.

When excise duty has increased, consumption has fallen, says Mr McNeil, so linking excise duty to income growth and tackling price discounts would help.

Cary Cooper
Drinking becomes a badge of courage
Professor Cary Cooper
But Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, thinks social and economic forces are more influential.

Among 20-somethings, increased disposable income, with most young people unable to afford a home, and the importance of the peer group as a surrogate family are key factors.

"Younger and younger people are identifying with their peer group as their family group," he says. "And drinking becomes a badge of courage."

Teenagers drink to escape their own pressures, such as academic expectations and financial strain, he adds.

HOW MANY PUBS WILL BE OPEN LATER?

It does not look like there will be a rush of 24-hour pubs opening next week.

About 70% of the 81,000 pubs in England and Wales have applied to change their licenses, mostly to stay open for an extra hour or two at weekends.

Some, like the politicians' favourite, The Red Lion in Westminster, have been unsuccessful.

But this isn't just about pubs, and out of the 160,000 licensed premises as a whole, only a fraction have asked for a 24-hour licence. They include about 160 pubs and bars, about 100 restaurants and hotels and 300 Tesco stores.

Even among those 160 pubs, it is thought some of them will only exercise the right on special occasions.

A spokesman for the Beer and Pub Association said: "Flexibility is the main reason for applying. If there's a sporting event on the other side of the world, say the World Cup in New Zealand that they are screening, then they can open up rather than apply for a one-off licence."

DOES THE REST OF EUROPE REALLY DRINK LESS THAN US?

No, France and several other countries drink more alcohol per head.

Alcohol consumption per capita, selected countries
Historically the heaviest drinking countries were the wine producers. For many years, France had one of the highest known levels of alcohol consumption but it has recently stabilised.

In the latest figures supplied by the Institute of Alcohol Studies, the UK's alcohol consumption per capita ranked it ninth among selected countries, behind France, but ahead of Australia (23rd) and the US (26th).

However, if present trends continue, the UK will overtake France in a couple of years.

And already the UK's teenagers drink more heavily than nearly all their counterparts across Europe.

A Datamonitor report found that UK women under 25 drink more than their European counterparts, and by 2009, it's expected to rise another 31% to three times as much as young women in France and Italy.




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