We're giving up the demon drink in droves ... Or are we?

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Well, they certainly chose their moment. As large swathes of the nation woke up to stinging, tongue-shrivelling, stomach-twisting hangovers, a temperance society yesterday predicted that more and more of us will give up booze in the New Year.

The Rechabites Friendly Society, founded more than 160 years ago to offer financial policies to people who abstain from alcohol, said temperance was making a comeback, among people of all social classes.

Its chief executive, William Turnbull, said: "We are seeing substantial growth in the number of people abstaining from alcohol and this manifests itself in increased demand for our products over the past few years. Our membership stands at more than 28,000 and is expanding steadily."

He claimed there were now more than a million non-drinking adults in the UK. One of the places with the highest rates of abstinence was Scotland.

Andy Willis, executive director of the British National Temperance League, said: "Temperance is growing in popularity, especially among the 25 to 34 age group where numbers abstaining from alcohol have more than doubled in the past 17 years."

The Rechabites was founded in northern England in the 19th century to help workers secure a future for themselves and their families. Now the society provides medical insurance, and savings and life assurance policies to people from all walks of life.

Mr Turnbull said: "The public are starting to turn away from alcohol. While it is important to keep the issue in context, we are definitely seeing the emergence of a trend, and this is a trend which transcends social class and demographic category."

It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that a temperance society is claiming success. But the Government's Social Trends survey for this year recorded an increase in the number of men and women drinking more than the recognised sensible maximum amounts, from 25 per cent of men in 1984 to 27 per cent in 1994-95, and from 9 per cent to 13 per cent of women.

Most surveys of British drinking habits have found that alcohol consumption is changing nature, rather than volume. We are becoming more enthusiastic about wine, and slightly less enthusiastic about beer. But teetotalism seems to be a small minority pursuit. (The word was an early soundbite, coined in 1833 and simply emphasising the T of Total. It means keeping off all alcohol, not simply spirits.)

However many Britons are swearing, one way or another, to mend their ways this morning, the evidence suggests that most will be stiffening their resolve with "a small one'' by ... well, by this evening at the very latest.

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