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Britain's bottle blues

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CORK IT UP: A minimum price of £0. 50 per unit of alcohol would save 3, 400 lives a year without hitting moderate drinkers, say experts

It's 10 pm. Inside Yates's Wine Lodge, the lights are low and the house music pounds as Michelle Daniels lines up four Jagerbombs for her small group of friends. The women swig their drinks - shots of the German liqueur Jagermeister dunked into Red Bull - and grimace with every mouthful. "It does the job, " says Daniels, a 21-year-old receptionist. By 'the job', Daniels means getting drunk as cheaply as possible on bargain £2. 50 cocktails, before heading out to more expensive venues.

Daniels is not alone. It's a typical Friday night in Watford, north of London, and young drinkers swarm the street, in and out of bars advertising cutprice cocktails and beers. There's a good-natured atmosphere, but the heavy security at every door speaks of a town used to the fallout from industrial levels of alcohol consumption.

This is what headline writers call 'binge-drinking Britain'. A blithely accepted culture of accelerated alcohol consumption, sometimes
to the point of oblivion, that is matched by few other counties in Europe. Now, as the country prepares for the obligatory drinking marathon that accompanies the World Cup every four years, new measures are being urged amid warnings that alcohol consumption, not just among youngsters but all corners of society, is reaching crisis levels.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence, an influential body that advises the state-funded National Health Service (NHS), has called for minimum alcohol pricing, a move that would call time on increasingly belligerent efforts by vendors to undercut their rivals. Other measures it wants to see introduced include a ban on alcohol advertising, restrictions on so-called "booze cruises" - where travellers bring bulk quantities of cheap wine, beer and liquor back from mainland Europe - and compulsory questioning of all NHS patients over their drinking habits.

NICE says 8, 000 people die from alcohol-related conditions annually in the UK, a figure that has doubled over the past 16 years, and drinking now costs the NHS £2. 7 billion annually. A recent study by health watchdog Drinkaware estimates 520, 000 Brits every day go to work with a hangover. "Alcohol is more affordable than it ever has been, and the price people pay does not reflect the cost of the health and social harms that arise, " said health economist Anne Ludbrook. "When it is sold at a very low price, people often buy and then consume more than they otherwise would have done. It is a dangerous pattern which many people have unknowingly fallen into. "

Measures to raise the price of alcoholic beverages - already being considered by the Scottish Parliament - would certainly effect change in Britain. The country's liquid love is visible in chain shops such as the prosaically named "Bargain Booze" and bars offering a-pound-a-drink discounts. But there are doubts they would end binge drinking.

There have been successive attempts to slake Britain's rapid-fire thirst for the hard stuff, but none have succeeded. Most notably, a 2005 relaxation of rigid 11 pm bar closing times failed to realise the dream of Britain as a leisurely cafe culture. Drinks continue to be thrown back with grim gusto despite the later hour of last call.

Ian Smith, manager of the town's Community Safety Unit, who says he has "grave concerns" about a recent increase in town centre violence, insists minimum pricing must target supermarkets rather than bars to combat the existing culture of "pre-loading" with cheap alcohol at home in a deliberate effort to get drunk.

The drinkers offer a surprisingly sober assessment of the proposals over the latest round of cocktails. "It won't work, " said Lee Partridge, a radio presenter. "Young people will still buy the same amount of alcohol;they'll just buy it from supermarkets and get drunk at home before they come out into town. "

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