At four seconds past 11 p.m. Thursday, Maxine Anders stood at the bar of The Hill pub and ordered a Jack Daniel's and Coke, a vodka and soda, and a red wine, making her one of the first people in nearly a century to order legal drinks in an English pub after 11 o'clock at night.
"I reckon for a few weeks people will go crazy, but then it will calm down," said Anders, 28, an acupuncturist buying a round of drinks for friends, predicting the fallout of a change in British drinking laws that has touched off a raging debate about this country's complicated relationship with alcohol.
One of England's best-known idiosyncrasies, the 11 p.m. pub-closing time, formally ended Thursday after 90 years on the books.
Proponents of the change, including the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, called the expansion of hours a necessary modernization and a way to promote responsible drinking in a nation whose people still love to wind down with a pint in a favorite pub. Those opposed, including many police officials and physicians, said expanded barroom hours will encourage the darker angels of a hard-drinking society, resulting in a vomit-tinged wave of assaults, rape, emergency room carnage and ballooning police overtime.
For weeks, London tabloids have run sensational campaigns in opposition, featuring a regular array of front-page photos of people -- most often young women -- who have passed out drunk in public places. The debate has largely been framed in the context of British youths' notorious binge drinking, which opponents argue will become worse if pubs serve later into the night. During the summer, the same tabloids raged against drunken behavior by British youth on vacation, publishing often-graphic photos of young Britons in drunken stupors or engaging in sex in the open in the Greek Isles or some other sunny destination.
"I think it can only make matters worse," Mandy Roberts, of the Campaign Against Drunk Driving, said of the new laws. "I think it is totally sending out the wrong message, and as a result we are going to see the figures rise of alcohol-related deaths on the roads in this country."
Mark Hastings, of the British Beer and Pub Association, dismissed such criticism from those he called "the merchants of doom."
"Anybody would think that the end of civilization is going to be visited upon them at midnight tonight," Hastings said. "But if you treat adults like grown-ups, they act like grown-ups. For too long we've had Nanny bending over us telling us what to do and what not to do."
Many opponents also predicted a flood of pubs and bars serving alcohol 24 hours a day. But initial statistics suggest that the vast majority of pubs applied to their local governments for an extension to midnight or 1 a.m., and mostly on weekends. Government statistics show that about 1,000 24-hour licenses have been granted, including about 350 pubs, bars and nightclubs. The rest are for supermarkets, hotels and private clubs, many of which were already open 24 hours and will now be permitted to sell alcohol at any hour.
According to surveys by the BBC and other media outlets here, 60,000 to 70,000 of the pubs, bars and nightclubs in England and Wales -- about a third of the total -- will now be permitted to serve alcohol after 11 p.m., and most of them plan to close by 1 a.m. Scotland and Northern Ireland already have longer pub-opening hours.
At The Hill, for example, assistant manager Stuart Bishop said he intended to stay open until midnight Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays only.
"It's just to give people an option when they're coming home to have a drink and a little conversation," Bishop said. "But we've also got to be part of the community and respect people's wishes."
Karina Grant, 28, a freelance writer having an after-11 glass of wine at The Hill, said she had mixed feelings about the new laws. She said the 11 p.m. closing law was "lame," but she did worry about more alcohol-related crime when pubs stay open later. And she raised another concern that has been largely overlooked in the debate: "Now that I don't need to go home at 11, I will drink more. And I will gain weight."
The early closings began in 1915 as a World War I-era measure to curb drinking among munitions factory workers. Pubs were also ordered closed each day from 3 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. until that provision was abolished in 1988. Over the years, the early closing of pubs has become as much as part of English lore as Big Ben and double-decker buses.
Government officials have stressed that the new hours will be accompanied by an increase in police presence. But Ian Blair, head of the Metropolitan Police, and other police officials have warned that their forces could be severely overburdened by late-night drinkers. The Home Office has published particularly graphic posters reminding drinkers that the fine for drunk and disorderly conduct is 80 pounds -- about $140. The poster shows "80 pounds" spelled out in vomit on a sidewalk.
Proponents argue that Britain faces no more danger of increased alcohol-related crime and injury than any other nation where people drink after 11 p.m. They argue that relaxing opening hours will eliminate one cause of binge drinking: the phenomenon of people rushing the bar at last call and ordering an armful of drinks to guzzle in 15 or 20 minutes.
"People drink against the clock," Hastings said. "Now we won't feel like we've always got someone in the background with a stopwatch."