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Can Britain avert a binge-drinking crisis?

Officials call for mandatory increases in the price of alcoholic beverages.

Binge drinking
Revelers enjoy themselves in a pub in Newcastle town center on Nov. 23, 2005, on the night that England and Wales prepared to relax licensing laws for the sale of alcohol. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Reuters)

WATFORD, U.K. — It’s 10 p.m. on a warm Friday. Inside Yates’s Wine Lodge, the lights are low and the house music pounds as Michelle Daniels lines up four Jagerbombs for her small group of friends. The women swig their drinks — shots of the German liqueur Jagermeister dunked into reeking glasses of the caffeinated Red Bull energy drink — and grimace with every mouthful.

“It does the job,” says Daniels, a 21-year-old receptionist, who is helping her friend Frances celebrate her birthday with a night out along the teeming strip of bars in the center of Watford. By “the job,” Daniels means getting drunk as cheaply as possible on bargain 2.50-pound cocktails ($3.60), before heading out to more expensive venues.

Daniels is not alone. It’s a typical Friday night in Watford, north of London, and gaggles of young drinkers swarm the main street, in and out of bars advertising cut-price cocktails and beers. There’s a boisterously good-natured atmosphere, but the heavy security at every door and an obvious police presence speak of a town used to the fallout from industrial levels of alcohol consumption.

This — and it’s unfair to single Watford out from the hundreds of other U.K. main streets that regularly play host to scenes of bacchanalian excess — is what headline writers call “binge-drinking Britain.” A blithely accepted culture of accelerated alcohol consumption, sometimes to the point of oblivion, that is unmatched by few other counties in Europe.

Now, as the country prepares for the obligatory drinking marathon that accompanies the World Cup every four years, new measures are being urged amid warnings that alcohol consumption, not just among youngsters but all corners of society, is reaching crisis levels.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence, an influential body that advises the state-funded National Health Service (NHS), has called for minimum alcohol pricing, a move that would — to a certain extent — call time on increasingly belligerent efforts by vendors to undercut their rivals.

Other measures it wants to see introduced include a ban on alcohol advertising, restrictions on so-called “booze cruises” — where travelers bring bulk quantities of cheap wine, beer and liquor back from Europe — and compulsory questioning of all NHS patients over their drinking habits.

NICE says 8,000 people die from alcohol-related conditions annually in the U.K., a figure that has doubled over the past 16 years, and drinking now costs the NHS 2.7 billion pounds annually. A recent study by health watchdog Drinkaware estimates 520,000 British people every day go to work with a hangover, a figure expected to increase during the World Cup, particularly if the English team triumphs.

“Alcohol is much more affordable now than it ever has been, and the price people pay does not reflect the cost of the health and social harms that arise,” said health economist Anne Ludbrook, who helped draw up the NICE recommendations. “When it is sold at a very low price, people often buy and then consume more than they otherwise would have done. It is a dangerous pattern which many people have unknowingly fallen into.”