Britain's booziest Christmas ever

Price wars in supermarkets and drink promotions in pubs are making alcohol cheaper than ever. And we're lapping it up, as this exclusive survey for the 'IoS' reveals. Which is why police are calling for a ban on advertising aimed at young drinkers and doctors are warning of record levels of liver disease. Sophie Goodchild and Marie Woolf report
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More alcohol than ever before will be consumed this festive season, prompting warnings from medical experts of a "health crisis", particularly among young women.

Over the 12 days of Christmas, the average Briton will get through 18 pints of beer, three bottles of wine, one bottle of spirits and four glasses of fortified wine - the equivalent of 137 units of alcohol in less than two weeks. This puts drinkers at real risk of liver disease and other alcohol-related conditions.

The figures, provided exclusively for The Independent on Sunday by analysts who monitor the drinks industry, mean that men will be drinking almost four times the advised maximum limit of 21 units a week. Women are particularly at risk as they will be consuming nearly six times their limit of 14 units.

Excessive price-cutting by supermarkets, sales to underage drinkers and cheap drinks promotions are all blamed for the fact this country is near the top of the binge-drinking league, despite sensible drinking messages. Britons will have drunk more than 8bn litres of alcohol by the end of 2006 - more than 200 litres per adult.

A separate report published today warns that rogue elements in the drinks industry are being allowed to get away with irresponsible promotions because self-regulation is "inconsistent" and "fragmented".

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation study reveals that the drinks industry is opposing attempts to regulate the amount of alcohol people drink because of the potential impact on profits. The research calls on ministers to intervene as a matter of urgency by raising taxes on alcohol in line with inflation.

Chief police officers also condemn the deliberate targeting of young people with sweet, brightly coloured drinks. In an interview with this newspaper, Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), calls for supermarkets to remove alcopop-type drinks from their shelves. He says: "We used to think whisky, vodka and gin was for losers, but this is being sugared and coloured up in a deliberate attempt to habituate youngsters to drink hard stuff."

Police have already introduced zero-tolerance measures in a bid to combat alcohol-related violence. But Mr Jones warned that unless brewers, off-licences and supermarkets become more responsible the health consequences will be "horrendous", especially for young people. "As a parent, never mind a cop, when I walk up and down the aisles of some of my local supermarkets, I'm absolutely baffled to think why anyone would believe these products are aimed at adults. They are not and I think it's pretty pointless pretending otherwise."

Alcohol is more affordable than ever and profits for drinks companies are soaring. Diageo, one the UK's largest producers, made a reported £10bn in sales between 2005 and 2006, and £2bn profit. The result is increased competition, prompting price cuts. Discounting is so widespread that the Competition Commission has launched an inquiry and will publish its findings next summer.

The estimated cost of alcohol misuse is £20bn a year and affects more than eight million adults in England. Alcoholic liver disease is at an all time high, and drink is the third highest cause of ill health after tobacco and high blood pressure. In 2004, more than 4,000 people died in England and Wales from alcohol-related liver disease, up more than a third since 1999.

Experts warn that two large glasses of wine a night could be enough to cause irreparable liver damage, especially if the person has a genetic predisposition to it, because the liver does not have the capacity to recover.

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, revealed he is seeing a dramatic increase in serious liver problems among young people, including women in their twenties who are heavy social drinkers.

The liver specialist also said he is seeing an "epidemic" in a serious but curable liver condition known as "fatty liver" which is the precursor to cirrhosis.

"We are seeing younger and younger patients who have been drinking well above recommended limits for 10 years," said Professor Gilmore, from the Royal Liverpool Hospital.

"Now children are starting drinking in their early or mid teens, so we are seeing them with serious liver problems in their twenties. Some will die, some will get a liver transplant."

Health organisations, such as the British Liver Trust, are urging ministers to get tough on the industry. The trust also wants to see messages such as "Alcohol kills" and "Give yourself at least two days off from alcohol" carried on bottles of drink. "The combination of cheap prices, easy accessibility and the rolling back of barriers to consumption combine to send the message that drinking 'any time, any place, anywhere', is acceptable and normal," said Alison Rogers, chief executive of the charity. "The Government needs to be less soft on the alcohol and retail sectors."

Whitehall sources have told this paper that ministers are in "advanced talks" with the industry on clearer labelling. They admit there is confusion over how many units are in a bottle of wine or beer. Labels are likely to depict a glass showing the number of units the beverage contains.

But experts say education alone is not enough to curb binge drinking. Professor Rob Baggott, the author of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report "Alcohol Strategy and the Drinks Industry", said there is a clear link between excessive drinking and the "unbelievable" cheapness of alcohol and that education about the dangers of excessive drinking does not achieve results.

His study uncovered allegations that drinks companies are manipulating research they fund into the medical and social effects of alcohol in a bid to play down the links to ill health.

He also found that, even if complaints about irresponsible promotions are upheld, little action is taken by named and shamed companies. In a fifth of cases, drinks companies failed to comply with the ruling against them to become more responsible.

Industry bodies also find it very difficult to expel members who don't follow good practice, selling to under-age drinkers, say. The report quotes one insider as saying: "We can't be in the business of throwing out our members; that will make us weaker."

Professor Baggott, an expert on public health policy who interviewed industry insiders, police, civil servants and health experts for his report, said: "There are companies which are taking their social responsibility role seriously but competitive pressures of the industry militate against good practice. There is clear pressure on landlords to sell x amount of alcohol every month and they will be forced out if they don't."

Analysts say there are no signs that Britons will heed messages on sensible drinking over the next few weeks. Mintel predicts that on average people will drink four to five times more by spending a week away from work.

"The amount drunk over Christmas in the UK compared to a normal week would be seriously high," said Harry Foster, a market analyst. But some experts say that excessive supermarket discounting could prompt a backlash as people go for quality, not quantity. "Some of the bargain basement offers each Christmas may become a thing of the past for consumers who increasingly favour high-end drinks," said Dr Nick Coates, of the research firm FreshMinds.

Many retailers remain defiant. Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket, says it does take its role as a responsible retailer seriously. "Do people binge drink at Christmas? Yes. But do we encourage people to come in and splurge? No."

And Asda is unrepentant. "It's... wrong to assume that deals on popular bottles of booze at this time of year fuel binge drinking. We do not apologise for helping lower the cost of Christmas," said a spokeswoman. Another said: "Our view of the world is that if we can lower the price we'll do it and then we'll sell more... It's a virtuous circle."

Additional reporting by Jonathan Owen and Sonia Elks

Young, gifted & drunk: Hollywood's bad and boozy B-list

Lindsay Lohan is only 20, but in Hollywood party terms it can sometimes seem she has lived several lifetimes. The promising young actress, far right, who shot to attention in Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, was once touted as the next Julia Roberts, America's new sweetheart. But that was before she started drinking, partying and hanging out with the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears - young stars at the centre of concerns over excessive drinking.

After months of negative publicity in which Lohan found herself chewed out by producers and fellow actors for her unprofessional hour-keeping on set, and became a permanent fixture on the most scurrilous gossip websites, she let it be known last week that she had enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Alcohol is causing all sorts of problems for some of her new best friends. Paris Hilton faces arraignment this week after her arrest for driving under the influence in August. Hilton was pulled over in Hollywood, breathalysed, handcuffed and arrested - all under the paparazzis' gaze. Her breath test suggested her blood alcohol level was at the limit. Hilton told police she was driving fast because she was starving and looking for a burger outlet.

Hilton's friend and co-star on the TV show The Simple Life, Nicole Richie, was booked last week. Police caught her driving the wrong way down a Los Angeles freeway in the dead of night. Richie herself told the police she had smoked some marijuana and taken a Vicodin, a painkiller regarded as inconsistent with safe driving.

Richie, 25, could be in big trouble because she has been picked up on driving under the influence before, in 2002. She ran a red light and hit a speed bump at 50mph in a 15mph zone. She also pleaded guilty to heroin possession in 2003 and was put on probation.

Paris, Lindsay, Nicole and Britney form a pack of girls who not only behave badly but have seemed to revel in it - as attested by Spears's habit of showing up at nightclubs without underwear - to the paparazzis' great delight.

Andrew Gumbel

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