Facing 'Swill Mentality,' Britain Extends Pub Hours

A law allowing some drinking establishments to serve alcohol 24 hours a day will soon be in effect in Britain. Police, doctors and pub owners admit the nation has a growing problem with binge drinking, but can't agree on how to address it.

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A new law will soon go into effect in England that will allow some drinking establishments to serve alcohol 24 hours a day. The plan to keep pubs open longer is actually being promoted as a way to prevent binge drinking. Police, doctors and the pub and alcohol industry agree there's a problem, even if they don't all agree on the solution. Here's NPR's Ivan Watson.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Nearly everywhere you go in England, you can find a pub to relax in and drink a pint of beer.

(Soundbite of people at pub)

WATSON: That is until shortly before 11 at night. That's the mandatory closing time for most English drinking establishments when bartenders ring the bell for last call.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Mr. SIMON COWELL(ph) (Bartender, Black Lion Pub): Time, gentlemen, please.

WATSON: Simon Cowell, a bartender at the Black Lion Pub in London's Bayswater neighborhood, says customers then have to drink up and leave, and there's no room for negotiation.

Mr. COWELL: When the last bell goes, that's it. We can't serve you. That's the finish of it.

WATSON: But the call of last orders always triggers a rush for the bar, where patrons order final rounds of drinks that they gulp down before getting kicked out for the night.

(Soundbite of pub; bell ringing)

WATSON: So on a typical Thursday, just before midnight, tipsy revelers of all ages spill out into the streets of London, visibly weaving and wobbling their way to the subway station for the drunken ride home.

(Soundbite of pub)

WATSON: But this pattern of drinking may change soon. In November, a controversial new licensing law will go into effect that will allow some bars to stay open 24 hours. Rob Hayward, a lobbyist for the Beer and Pub Association, thinks this will cut down on some of the harmful consequences of what he calls 11 PM speed drinking.

Mr. ROB HAYWARD (Lobbyist, Beer and Pub Association): Having a standard throwing-out time generates a swill mentality, so that everybody goes out at the same time. They get into a mini-cab and then they then fight for the cab rank, for the mini--for the cabab(ph) or whatever. And by allowing people to be flexible on their leaving hours, then they will be more civilized.

WATSON: But a council of judges has slammed the new act, predicting it will only result in an increase of alcohol-related crime and sexual assault. Humfrey Malins is an opposition Parliament member and part-time judge.

Mr. HUMFREY MALINS (Opposition Parliament Member; Part-Time Judge): Many of our towns and cities on a Friday or Saturday evening are not very safe places to go because youngsters, fueled with drink, spill out onto the streets and cause a lot of trouble. Now to say to me the one answer to that is to extend the drinking hours is to say to me we're going to make it worse rather than better.

WATSON: Everyone agrees on one thing, though: Britain has a drinking problem.

Professor IAN GILMORE (Chairman, Royal College of Physicians' Alcohol Committee): It's an epidemic of alcohol misuse. Certainly, alcohol consumption is rising in this country. We've never been drinking more per head than since before the First World War.

WATSON: Professor Ian Gilmore is the chairman of the Royal College of Physicians' Alcohol Committee. He says per capita alcohol consumption has doubled since the 1950s. He's also witnessed a spike in the incidence of cirrhosis of the liver.

Prof. GILMORE: It's gone up tenfold in the last 20 or 30 years in young people, and when I became a liver specialist, first, we used to see cirrhosis in people in their 50s and 60s. Now we're seeing it quite regularly in young men and women as low as in their early 20s.

WATSON: The British, many here point out, do not share the wine-sipping cafe culture of their French, Italian and Spanish neighbors in continental Europe. Instead, on a carefree summer evening outside a pub in Soho, dozens of men and women stood on a sidewalk, chatting and working their way through pint after pint of beer.

(Soundbite of crowd)

WATSON: Edward Rikes(ph) and his colleague, Martin Smith(ph), were both criminal lawyers taking a break after work. And though they clearly enjoy drinking, they both said Britain was not yet ready for round-the-clock access to booze.

Unidentified Man: The longer it stays open, the more we'll drink, and that creates a problem, and we only know too well from the job we do, from attending police stations and so on.

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News.

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