A bitter divide: will new laws usher in sensible drinking or all-day bingeing?

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Britain begins one of the boldest social experiments in decades at midnight with the introduction of new licensing laws that ministers hope will alleviate worsening alcohol problems, but which have inspired gloomy predictions from doctors and police.

At 12 tonight, 50 years of piecemeal licensing legislation will be swept away in England and Wales and replaced with the right to serve alcohol 24 hours a day.

Ministers hope the move will be the beginning of the end for the high levels of binge drinking that now cause public disorder and ill health.

Academics who studied the issues surrounding alcohol say such radical reform has not been attempted in any country. But they warn that smaller-scale experiments among similar drinking cultures have been failures.

Whoever is right, tomorrow signals a U-turn from decades of restrictive legislation on when pubs and bars could open, and will end the routine shouts from bar staff of "drink up" at 11pm.

Ministers say that new police powers in the 2003 Licensing Act should shut down pubs blighted by disorder and drunkenness.

Thousands of licensed premises will be subjected to covert checks over the next four weeks to catch bars and off-licences that sell drinks to people under 18 - part of a concerted effort to reduce the level of binge-drinking among teenagers.

A day before the new law comes into force, the Government handed its critics more ammunition by saying that, in the short term, alcohol-related crime would rise.

Paul Goggins, a Home Office minister, said: "The figures may go up because of stronger enforcement. We want to see alcohol-related violence and disorder decreased and we are determined to get a grip on it."

The Conservatives, who made last-ditch attempts to scupper the legislation in Parliament last week, described the prediction as "absurd" given the legislation's aim to reduce crime.

None of the country's alcohol experts are predicting that the legislation will instantly cause an orgy of late-night drinking.

Many pubs - which are expected to start opening late tomorrow night - are likely to serve until midnight or 1am on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. But some pubs and bars will open well into the early hours, possibly as late as 5am, 6am or 7am.

Sixty per cent of pubs have applied for an extension to their opening hours. According to the Government's figures, just 700 premises have asked to sell alcohol around the clock. Among them are 240 pubs, including all of those operated by Palmers Brewery in west Dorset.

But the experts - academics, psychologists and treatment specialists - are unanimous that the move to allow 24-hour drinking is likely to increase crime, disorder and ill-health.

Many other professions also have concerns. Early this year, the Association of Chief Police Officers said it was worried about extending the hours "given the culture of excessive drinking" that already existed. The organisation will not comment now.

Doctors predict more cases at accident and emergency departments, whose caseload after 11pm is already 70 per cent alcohol-related. Martin Shalley, president of the British Association for Emergency Medicine, believes that the number of patients treated for alcohol-withdrawal in the daytime will also rise.

Professor Martin Plant, an expert in alcohol at the University of West England, suggests the reforms will almost certainly increase the amount of drinking. "We have evidence from our own history that ... liberalising the availability of alcohol has been followed pretty rapidly by increases in disorder and alcohol-related problems. Then there is the evidence from ... Ireland, Iceland and Australia ... [where] violence and alcohol-related problems increased substantially."

Ministers, however, argue that in a modern society adults have the right to drink past 11pm, without having to dance or hear music. The police will now act more strongly against people who misbehave.

Britain's approach to alcohol has varied over the centuries, though heavy drinking has been common for hundreds of years. Until recently in Europe, Britain was ranked in the middle in terms of average alcohol consumption - though we drank more intensely. Britain's intake has been rising rapidly since the early 1990s. Liver cirrhosis, alcohol addiction and even cancer of the mouth are rising sharply in young drinkers.

According to government statistics, eight million people are at risk of harm from drinking too much - 25 per cent of the population. One million are officially "alcohol dependent."

Alcohol is far more deep-rooted and problematic in British society than other drugs, according to Nick Heath, emeritus professor of alcohol and other drugs at Northumbria University. "It's clear that the main problem with drinking in this country is about drinking patterns; drinking to excess, drinking to intoxification. The Government imagines that by campaigning against binge drinking it's going to change those patterns. It will take decades for these kind of changes to take place," he predicted.

24 facts on drinking

* 1.1 million - Britons officially classed "alcohol dependent"

* Ninth - UK's rating in a league table showing alcohol consumption per capita

* 200,000 - pubs, bars, clubs, cafes, cinemas, supermarkets and off-licences applying for new licences

* 9 - the number of alcohol units in a bottle of wine

* 81,000 - number of pubs in England and Wales

* 700 - number of outlets the Government estimates have applied for 24-hour licences

* 11 units - average consumption of alcohol a week for 15-year-olds

* 10 per cent - proportion of 24-hour licences rejected by local authorities

* 70 per cent - number of venues that have applied to serve alcohol later or make other changes to their drinks licence

* 40 per cent - rise in vodka sales in past five years

* £1bn - estimated spend of drinks industry in UK on advertising

* £150,000 - government spending on poster campaign warning drinkers to behave

* 20 per cent - rise in alcohol-related deaths in five years

* 25 per cent - population who drink so heavily they risk self-harm

* 48 per cent - supermarkets selling to under-age customers this summer

* 52 per cent - pubs and clubs with reputation for trouble caught serving alcohol to children

* £20,000 - potential bonuses for city-centre pub managers for increasing sales in their pubs

* 3,300 - children aged between 11 and 15 admitted to A&E with alcohol-related illness in one year

* 100 per cent - the amount we drink has doubled since 1950

* 49 per cent - alcohol was 49 per cent more affordable in 2000, than 1978, according to Downing Street's Strategy Unit

* £20bn - a government estimate of the cost of the impact of alcohol abuse for the nation - including the health service, policing and the economy

* 3 per cent - binge-drinking among men fell by that amount between 1998 and 2003

* 31 per cent - how much the amount that UK women under 25 drink is expected to rise by 2009

* 2.4 - the number of alcohol units in an MD 20/20 alcopop