New British disease

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 October, 2004, 12:00am

Britain's seaside towns are under threat, warned tourism expert Alan Woods, chief of the clean beach lobby Blue Flag, last week. Not from bad weather (or bad food), but from binge drinkers, that young, raucous, violent and swelling demographic plaguing not just coastal communities but most British town centres.

Although they are usually young males, increasing numbers of 'lager loutettes' are also bingeing on cheap alcopops and cocktails, all within the confined opening hours of low-rent town centre chain pubs and neon-bright drinking halls, spilling on to the streets at closing time for a knees-up or a punch-up, followed by a kebab.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has joined the crusade, pledging to banish the 'new British disease' - defined as a daily consumption of eight units of alcohol (four pints of beer) for men, and four units for women. Each year, it costs the nation GBP1.7 billion (HK$23.8 billion) in health care, GBP6.4 billion in lost working days because of hangovers and injuries, and GBP7.3 billion in crime (half of all violent crime is alcohol-fuelled, with 70 per cent of weekend accident and emergency hospital admissions due to drink). Last week, Sussex chief constable Ken Jones called for a US-style ban on under-21s drinking. And because bingeing is now the norm, some experts are blaming supermarkets, brewers, and, ultimately capitalism.

In this crusade, a war is being waged on alcopops with names like Smirnoff Ice or Bacardi Breezer. Along with Burberry caps and scarves, such drinks are banned in certain bars, which claim they attract 'the wrong type of client'. Conspiracy theorists even claim that brewers dreamed up the sweet but potent drink to compete with the growth in mineral water drunk by ravers taking Ecstasy.

The British seaside town does have one ally, though: the low-cost airlines that ship the ultimate bingers, the stag do or hen party, to far-off cities such as Prague, Budapest or Tallinn (in Estonia). Few there seem to mind the growing invasion of drunken packs of Britons.

Liberals view the only solution as a long-term change in culture, by adopting a continental approach, meaning staggered, all-night drinking. The strategy is risky for the police, which predicts a leap in violent crime, and political dynamite for government MPs, who fear they will win few votes once the booze-fuelled mayhem appears on TV.

Critics say that next year's planned longer licensing hours are just fuel for the fire - Europeans drink more than Britons, but not all on Friday nights. Still, if fighting fire with fire works, then fighting fire with dynamite may pay off, too. And if it does not, there will be some cracking TV.