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Is it simply British to 'get smashed'?

By Anthony Faiola
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 7:17 PM

LONDON - The land that gave the world the 20-ounce pint of beer is in the throes of a loaded debate: Should government act to curb a dangerous culture of binge drinking, or is it simply British to get smashed?

It is no secret the residents of these isles like a drink, or three. An inebriated King James I once fell to the royal floor while greeting the King of Denmark, and a room at the Priory - the London rehabilitation clinic - is something of a rite of passage for British celebrities. But even here, the national outcry is reaching a fevered pitch over lager lad hooligans and increasingly, their female counterparts, ladettes, turning British cities and towns into what the new Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron denounced this month as "the wild west."

Concern over "boozy Britain" has been mounting for years, with attempts to curb binge drinking either backfiring or having little effect. But with late-night crime and alcohol-related hospitalizations surging, a fresh push is afoot for stronger local and national laws. A ban on ladies' nights and all-you-can-drink specials went into effect in April, as did a law forcing pubs and bars in England and Wales to offer smaller glass sizes to patrons.

Outraged politicians are now seeking to roll back late-night serving hours and hike the price of notoriously cheap alcohol, which in supermarkets and convenience stores can cost less than a small bottle of Evian water.

"We've got a situation where in some supermarkets you can walk in and buy incredibly cheap drinks, a lot of which is high-strength lager, which people are using to get off their heads before they even go out," Cameron declared while endorsing a move in Manchester and other local jurisdictions to set a minimum price for liquor.

Social commentaries are flying about how - and whether - government should handle the problem, with the BBC's popular Radio 4 launching a program last month titled "Britain on the Bottle: Alcohol and the State." Libation-lovers are decrying the latest moves as nothing short of a Victorian conspiracy, defending heavy drinking as part of British culture.

Some compare the current push to the restrictive Gin Acts of the 1700s, which aimed to limit a cheap spirits craze that saw Londoners guzzling an average of two pints of dry comfort per week. Peter Brown, the British author and a self-described "drinker," recently labeled the hysteria over binge drinking a movement whipped up by "neo prohibitionists." Fintan O'Toole, the Irish-born author, penned a commentary in the Guardian newspaper suggesting some nations are simply predisposed to heavy drinking, and that the British (and the Irish) should not only accept but embrace it.

Mark Hastings, who represents the British Beer and Pub Association, served the $44 billion-a-year industry's opinion straight up. "Binge drinking is British," he said. "Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens are littered with references to heavy drinking. Harold lost the battle of Hastings because of a big night on the mead. You're not going to change this by fiddling about with a few laws."

Yet many here contend Britain is literally drinking itself to death, with a record 9,031 people dying from overdrinking in 2008, up 125 percent since 1992. Experts are warning of a national epidemic in liver disease. One major survey released in April showed the British to be the heaviest binge drinkers in the European Union, with almost one in nine reportedly guzzling at least seven drinks a sitting.

Drunken British tourists have become the bane of Southern Europe, with one flight from Glasgow to Ibiza held up for three hours this month as two stag-party celebrants were hauled off the plane.

Some London nightclubs are now employing staff paramedics to treat binging patrons. The annual number of alcohol-related hospital admissions - from slips and falls to face lacerations from fights - jumped to 945,000 in 2009, up 85 percent since 2003. Though public concern centers largely on binge drinking by teens to those in their 40s, an increasing majority of alcohol-related hospitalizations here are coming from those 60 and over.

Cameron and others are at least partly blaming the "failed" attempt by the ousted Labor government to introduce a French-like cafe culture of moderate drinking five years ago. By doing away with a long tradition of 11 p.m. pub closings and allowing, in some cases, 24-hour drinking, authorities reasoned they would end the usual rush to imbibe before last call.

But that vision of a nation of Bordeaux-sipping delicate drinkers never materialized. Instead, critics say later serving hours have further fueled the rise of No-Go zones in British cities on late nights, when roving bands of drunken louts rule the roost.

More and more, those louts are so-called "ladettes," young British women who engage in liquid liberation as they aim to get as drunk as men. Much of Britain is now complaining about scenes like one last Saturday on the fringes of London's Soho district. Around midnight, Vicki Hamilton, a 24-year-old shop clerk and a mess in smeared makeup and towering heels, was hunched over and retching. Her two girlfriends argued next to her, only stopping long enough to hurl curses at the equally drunk packs of red-faced men making jokes at Hamilton's expense.

Foreign tourists and older British couples gave the girls nervous glances as they passed by at a respectful distance.

"If we want to have a good time, that's our business," said Hamilton, who rounded out her night with four pints of alcoholic cider, two shots of sambuca and three glasses of wine.

Nevertheless, under pressure from local police and angry residents, the new government is now looking to give local authorities more power to roll back serving hours and charge late-night establishments for policing costs.

"There is a big discussion now about cultural determinance, about why Britons are like Britons" with drink, said Calum Irving, advocacy director for the responsible drinking organization Our Life. "But that shouldn't mean we just sit back and do nothing about it."

Special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi contributed to this report.

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