Drinking time is more than a cup of tea for Britons

Legislation aims to combat binge alcohol consumption


London -- If consuming alcohol were a competition, Britons would be pouring their victory drinks -- and then pouring some more.

And they might toast the news that the country has reached a new high, or low: Never in the annals of drinking have so many women drunk so much alcohol in so short a time as British women. Britain has developed a serious drinking problem in virtually every segment of society, including teenagers and even younger boys and girls.

"There's something going on here that Britain -- and indeed the world -- has never seen," said David M. Fahey, a professor of history at the Miami University of Ohio and a board member of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society. "The identification with heavy drinking almost throughout history has been with middle-class, working males. This female drinking and this underage drinking you see in Britain at such astounding numbers is something new."

Britain's drinking problem shows up in study after study, from Britain's Institute for the Study of Alcohol, the Office of National Statistics, the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Drugs and others.

British women 18-24 are drinking the most, the alcohol industry research group Datamonitor found, bypassing the Germans.

On average, Britons drank the equivalent of 8.6 liters of pure alcohol each in 2001, nearly double the rate of a generation ago. That is the equivalent of 86 bottles of wine or 350 pints of beer.

Women ages 18-24, the researchers found, will be drinking the equivalent of three large glasses of wine a day by 2009, double the amount of 10 years ago, and triple their counterparts in Italy and France.

"We can see the trend of drinking more among those who already drank and more people coming into that pool," said John Band, an analyst for Datamonitor. "The numbers are quite striking."

The British Medical Association, another group to document the increase in drinking among the country's women, said the combination of increased independence among women, more disposable income and drinks specials and inviting bars has helped increase consumption.

The Institute for Alcohol Studies notes that in Mediterranean countries, for example, women have grown up where "drinking time" is -- 80 percent of the time -- a glass of wine or beer with family over a meal and then, when older, with friends. In Britain, in contrast, 70 percent of drinking is an activity of its own, and only half the time at home with family.

So, women are out drinking with friends more often, and the tendency to buy in rounds has the added effect of increasing the amount each woman drinks.

"There's quite a culture of drinking here," said Olivia Adams, 24, nursing a White Russian at Bar Cuba in West London. "For a lot of people, it's just a natural end to the day." An investment manager in London's financial district, she is just the type of woman who researchers said is helping fuel the increase in drinking: young, single and with a disposable income that allows for drinking in the city's fancier bars.

She goes to the bar about three times a week, after work, for a drink or two, rarely more. Her tipple is vodka and cranberry juice.

"Here, we are going out with the sole purpose of getting off your face," said her friend, Tom Gatsby, 25, a commodities trader from Notting Hill. "There's this rush, rush, rush, drink them down."

The rush, rush, rush is partly due to Britain's long standard 11 p.m. closing time for pubs.

Under legislation aimed at combating binge drinking, pubs are now able to apply for licenses to remain open all night, a change that has received mixed reviews from police, health workers and pub neighbors.

The applications are now only being reviewed but government statistics estimate that up to 60 percent of pubs have applied to remain open up until 2 a.m.

The health effects of rising alcohol consumption include the doubling of alcohol-related liver disease over the past 10 years.

"You don't drink that amount of alcohol and not have problems," Band said. "The body simply cannot absorb that much alcohol efficiently."

That brings Britain to another problem, one that has emerged only during the past 10 years and shows in this statistic: Underage teenage girls in Britain are now binge-drinking more than boys, with girls as young as 11 hooked on alcohol.

One-quarter of all children ages 11-15, in fact, admitted trying alcohol within a period of a week, many of them admitting to drinking five to 10 pints in a week, according to Britain's Institute for Alcohol Studies. For that age group, those figures are second only to those for children in Denmark.

The survey, completed last month, is one of many finding increases in drinking, particularly binge drinking, defined here as at least five drinks in a sitting. According to the government, this new breed of drinkers has led to the hospitalization of an average of 13 children a day, suffering from the toxic effects of bingeing.

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