The Prime Minister has held crisis talks at No 10 in a personal attempt to tackle Britain's binge-drinking epidemic, as experts warn that urgent action is needed to tackle record numbers needing hospital treatment for alcohol abuse.
Confidential minutes from the meeting, obtained by the IoS, reveal for the first time how Gordon Brown, together with senior ministers, plan a radical response to Britain's binge-drinking problem that could see excessive drinking become as taboo as smoking in public.
A blueprint of controversial measures discussed at the private meeting will see a massive crackdown on what Mr Brown calls "the harm caused by problematic alcohol consumption", with the Prime Minister vowing to take action against "unacceptable drinking behaviour."
Hard-hitting proposals include bans on outdoor alcohol advertising within a certain distance of schools, as well as on drinks advertising on TV before the watershed. University students face a clampdown on drinks promotions, and parents will be put under pressure to set a good example by drinking responsibly in the home. Parents of children caught drinking may be subject to fixed-penalty fines.
The confidential document says the nation's drink habit is an "ingrained social and cultural problem and that education in its broadest context may be a solution, as it had been to drink-driving 20 years ago". It also reveals that the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, wants Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships to have alcohol strategies in place by April 2008. New measures include draconian new powers enabling police to designate trouble hot spots as "alcohol disorder zones" and effectively force problem pubs and clubs to pay for policing for at least three months.
The Prime Minister warned drink industry leaders that enforcement tools were in place, and more could be if voluntary industry action around pricing and special promotions failed.
The powers are an extension of the existing Designated Public Places Orders to deal with problems of antisocial drinking. More than 500 such orders, which enable police to stop people drinking and confiscate alcohol, have been issued since 2001, according to new Home Office figures. A total of 250 people have also been forced to have treatment for their drink problems or risk prosecution in the first few weeks of a new alcohol arrest referral scheme that could be rolled out nationally in 2009.
Mr Brown's personal involvement, together with Ms Smith, public health minister Dawn Primarolo, the Secretary of State for Culture, James Purnell, and Home Office minister Vernon Coaker at the summit was designed to show how serious the Government is about "tackling unacceptable drinking behaviour". Senior figures from Britain's biggest drinks companies and medical experts were at the summit at No 10 last month.
The move comes as the country's top doctors and alcohol experts joined together in what is being described as an unprecedented clampdown on booze and binge drinking, with the recent formation of the Alcohol Health Alliance. "Unless we act now to stem the rising tide of excessive drinking, particularly in the young, we will see yet more people dying prematurely in early adult life," warned Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians. "We are an 'alcohol-centric' society," he said, "We have never drunk more in living memory and alcohol has never been cheaper. Alcohol... has to be treated more like a legalised drug than food. It is hard to see how the drinks industry could put its weight behind something aimed at getting people to drink less because it is not in the interests of its shareholders. I would like to see government health warnings on alcohol in the same way as tobacco."
Tougher laws are being considered to stop stores selling cut-price alcohol, as part of a new package of measures being considered for deployment in the war on binge drinking. These include banning the sale of alcohol at a loss and higher taxes. Last week, health services minister Ben Bradshaw admitted: "We remain concerned about the practice by shops and supermarkets of deep discounting promotions often as loss leaders and below cost price."
The Government is also rethinking 24-hour drinking, amid fears that the promotion of cheap alcohol results in greater alcohol abuse, and a report due out next summer will look at ways of controlling the activities of drinks companies. "Depending on the review's findings, we are prepared to change the law," said Mr Bradshaw.
A ban on alcohol ads being shown before the watershed looks likely. The Secretary of State for Children, Ed Balls, said: "There is a spike in alcohol advertising between 4pm and 6pm. This is an issue we will be looking at over the next few months." Diageo boss Paul Walsh said the industry proposed making one in every six commercials a warning about the risks of drink.
But campaigners warned that time may soon be up for voluntary agreements. The sheer availability of drink has led to millions of Britons having a "dysfunctional relationship with alcohol", claims Frank Soodeen, from Alcohol Concern. "There is an increasingly fundamental problem at the heart of how we socialise and we are at a tipping point. Self-regulation isn't working... it's time for clearer leadership on this public health issue, both in terms of dealing with the drinks industry and also in challenging the assumption that we have a God-given right to buy large quantities of booze with no regard for the consequences."
The number of premises with 24-hour licences has risen by 70 per cent, from 3,000 to 5,100, in a year, with almost 1,000 of the licences being held by supermarkets and shops. Campaigners say supermarkets, in particular, continue to offer cut-price drinks promotions to lure customers. Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda recently offered lager at 22p a can cheaper than bottled water. Industry analysts estimate that 1.2bn will be spent on cut-price alcohol this Christmas.
But Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said: "The industry recognises there are too many problem drinkers in the UK. However, we believe politicians and public health professionals who think increasing taxes and regulation will provide the magic-bullet solution are mistaken. This is complex problem that requires cultural change."
The ease with which people can buy alcohol, along with the rates of consumption, means that it is "the most widely abused drug in our society", said Prof Brian Prichard, chair of the Institute of Alcohol Studies. "Supermarkets are putting profits before public health when it comes to alcohol. This is a developing crisis that needs to be addressed."
The Government is so concerned that it is to spend more than 9m on a series of hard-hitting campaigns warning people of the risks with children and young binge-drinkers singled out for special attention. This dwarfs the 64,000 the Government spent last year.
A night on the town...
20:00 The bars begin to fill in Kingston, Surrey, as young people wander about the town deciding where to start their night out. A lone busker playing Christmas carols is ignored.
21:10 The Druid's Head in the Market Place is packed. A group of university students take turns arm-wrestling each other at their table. The mood inside is friendly, the average age barely over 20.
21:45 Door staff at the Works nightclub in St James's Road turn one group away, while a dark-haired teenage girl pleads with the manager to let her come in. He flatly refuses, accusing her of earlier throwing a bottle.
22:35 A big queue has formed outside Oceana, as revellers prepare to party the night away. Opposite, outside Barcadia, a young blonde girl is propped up by her friends as they try to get her in past the door staff.
22:45 Two men in their 20s dressed as Christmas presents swagger down the street singing. The town centre is filling up, the mood edgier. The busker is playing 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas' but still does little business.
23:00 Two men urinate in the street near Barclays Bank. A pink limousine pulls up outside the Bentall Centre. In minutes, it is surrounded by 20 people trying to look in, but no one gets out and the crowd loses interest.
23:30 The atmosphere is more raucous. A girl gives her friend a piggy-back while a boy leans over some railings and is violently sick in the road. The queue outside Oceana is now very long.
23:45 Gemma Attwood, 20, is celebrating her friend's birthday. She says she's had six cocktails and three shots. 'I'm not lively drunk at the moment, just drunk. I need to get really drunk and then I'll be OK.'
00:00 A girl is having a screaming row with someone on her mobile phone by Kingston Bridge. She alternates between screaming abuse and sobbing uncontrollably as her friends try to console her.
00:10 A middle-aged woman runs out of a pub on Kingston Riverside and throws up on the river path. A group of friends parts company in Eden Street, shoving each other into walls and a bus stop.
00:25 A hen party totters unsteadily through the market place clutching bottles of beer, but one of the group lets hers slip from her hand and it shatters on the pavement as the girls scream.
00:30 A group of young men encounters the hen party and starts shouting chat-up lines at the girls, who react angrily and shout abuse back. The groups leave in different directions shouting obscenities.
00:50 The fast-food restaurants are filling up and a fight nearly breaks out outside one in Eden Street when a man pushes past a group of teenagers holding chips and a few fall to the ground.
01:00 The busker has finally given up and left for the night. But, for some revellers, the night is just getting started...
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