Britons are the biggest binge drinkers in Europe, a government report said today.

Britons are the biggest binge drinkers in Europe, a government report said today.

Four out of 10 men and 22 per cent of women "binge drink" - defined as drinking at least a bottle of wine in one session - compared with nine per cent of men and five per cent of women in France.

Overall, a third of British men and a fifth of women drink more than the recommended levels of 21 and 14 units a week respectively.

The number of women who exceed the guidelines has increased by half in 15 years.

The study said alcohol abuse costs Britain at least £20 billion a year, including 17 million working days being lost annually to hangovers and drink-related illness.

Heavy drinking costs employers £6.4 billion a year, while the cost of clearing up alcohol-related crime is a further £7.3 billion.

Two million "bed days" in the NHS, or one in every 26, is taken up by alcohol-related illness, it added, with an annual cost to the taxpayer of £1.7 billion.

Authors of the long-awaited report - which will form the basis of ministerial attempts to tackle drink-related problems - believe even these massive costs to be conservative.

Home Office minister Hazel Blears, launching the document with a visit to a Manchester nightclub, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think education and prevention is going to be a big part of our policies.

"I think young people will say to you that we get lots of information about drugs but perhaps we don't get as much information about alcohol as we really need to get."

She said ministers wanted to develop a more "civilised" late-night culture in town and city centres.

"We have got to try to get into a culture that the whole of our entertainment isn't just about alcohol.

"It should be about the theatre, about cinema, about bowling - about a range of things."

Sixteen-year-olds were drinking twice as much as they did 10 years ago and a lot more than their European peers, the study said.

The introduction of alcopops in 1996 may have led to children aged 11 to 15 drinking more alcohol - consumption rose by 63 per cent for this age group between 1992 and 2001.

Alcopop consumption by children has grown from 1.4 units a week when the brands first came on the market to 2.2 units in 2001, the study said.

There are 1.2 million incidents of alcohol-related violence a year, he added, and four out of 10 visits to hospital casualty wards are drink-related, rising to seven out of 10 at weekends between midnight and 5am.

Between 800,000 and 1.3 million school children are affected by parents with drink problems, the report added.

The study said conditions in clubs or bars were crucial to how much customers drank - such as the amount of seating, crowd levels, ambience, ventilation and noise levels.

Ministers hope to draw up a strategy to combat the problem and begin implementing it next year.

Charity Alcohol Concern said the Government would have to vastly increase spending.

"The recently announced £250 million Smirnoff vodka revamp represents more than double the amount spent on alcohol treatment and counselling services across the country," said chief executive Eric Appleby.

"What we now need to see, and quickly, is some serious action - and money.

"We recently spearheaded a year-long commission into help-giving alcohol services - which revealed that they required a threefold increase in resources from £100 million to £300 million.

"Until we get this proactive action, we will simply be sweeping up the mess created by alcohol problems - dealing with its symptoms rather than the illness itself."

Jean Coussins, chief executive of the Portman Group, which promotes sensible drinking, said the Government's analysis was "balanced", recognising that moderate drinking prevents 22,000 deaths every year - about the same number as deaths caused by alcohol misuse.

"What is needed now is action," said Ms Coussins.

"The Government should develop mass media campaigns to curb excessive drinking, funded at the same level as its drink-drive campaigns over the years.

"The drinks industry must be part of the solution to alcohol misuse. The spirit as well as the letter of the strict advertising codes must be observed."

Rob Hayward, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said the report was "generally well-balanced" but claimed the binge drinking figures were "very loosely defined".

"The strategy unit has calculated the number of binge drinkers on a base of eight units a day for a man and six for a woman - on this measure nearly one in five male pensioners is a binge drinker," he said.

"By using that definition, it is not surprising they come up with a large number."

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin accused the Government of being "far too complacent" about the problem of alcohol abuse, particularly among youngsters.

Lord Adebowale, chief executive of social care charity Turning Point, said: "Alcohol has been on the back-burner for too long and it is high time it became a priority for Government.

"The full alcohol strategy cannot come quickly enough."

He added: "Today's interim report is to be welcomed for showing us the real scale of the alcohol problem but it is no substitute for Government action.

"For too long England has been lagging behind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who already have national alcohol strategies in place.

"What we really need is a similar commitment from the Government to tackle the enormous harm that alcohol misuse can cause.

"This needs to be backed up by adequate funding, placing alcohol on a par with drug misuse.

"The strategy needs to include a public awareness campaign to inform people about the risks associated with alcohol and how to drink safely.

"It must also ensure that help is available when people need it."

And Lesley King-Lewis, chief executive of Action on Addiction, added: "Greater awareness is needed among young people of the dangers of excessive drinking.

"Overall, more money should be invested in alcohol services as they are seriously under-funded at the moment.

"Only £100 million a year is spent on alcohol services, compared to £500 million for drugs.

"Twice as many people are dependent on alcohol than are hooked on all forms of drugs."