London — The British government is preparing to wage war against alcohol in the new year. Alarmed by statistics showing steep rises in alcoholism and crime rooted in abuse of drink, the authorities will use higher prices and a massive publicity campaign in an attempt to get a grip on the problem.
Figures now on the desk of Health Minister Patrick Kenkin show sharp increases in drunken driving offenses and other crimes where alcohol has played a part.
More than 700,000 people in Britain are reported dependent on alcohol -- 40 percent more than a decade ago.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, one person in 10 is likely to have a drinking problem -- over twice as many as in England and Wales.
Deaths from alcoholism have trebled in recent years as the prices of most alcoholic drinks have fallen in relation to people's incomes.
Mr. Jenkin has swung around to the view that three-pronged campaign is needed to reverse current trends: First is higher prices for alcoholic drinks by imposing much heavier taxes. Second is tougher codes of practice for curbing alcohol consumption in public places. Third is stricter laws against drunken driving.
the health minister would also like to see employers and trade unions play a more active part in spotting bad drinking habits among employees at work and counseling better behavior.
Among his more controversial ideas is a new set of rules to be applied to television commercials advertising alcoholic drink. The aim would be to eliminate the sex-appeal aspect of drink commercials.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is likely to be highly sympathetic to the Jenkin plan, especially on the financial side. She had to find at least $:1 billion ($2.33 billion) in extra taxes next year, and does not want to raise income taxes.
Higher taxes on drink would get around the problem, and at the same time boost a broader plan to curb alcohol consumption.
On the other hand, what Mr. Jenkin is setting out to do amounts to a massive public education project. For this reason he is in favor of issuing a consultative "green paper" early in 1981 aimed at provoking public debate on what he sees as a crucial issue.
Health Department officials say alcoholism and widespread abuse of drink is putting an extra strain on medical facilities and cutting deeply into worker efficiency in shops, offices, and factories.
Drunk-driving offenses offer one of he most worrying indicators of the extent of the problem Mr. Jenkin faces. One third of the drivers who die in car accidents in Britain have been found to have a blood alcohol level higher than the legal limit.
Whitehall officials say there is clear evidence that penalties for drunken driving lack a strong enough deterrent effect.
The same officials suggest that the mood of the government concerning the need for stern action on alcohol consumption in general has swung steadily towards the need for stricter controls.
One turning point was provided by outbreaks of soccer violence in the last year or two. Analysis of the incidents showed that alcohol was freely available to crowds at the games.
After the curbs were clamped on alcohol consumption at soccer grounds earlier this year, violent incidents have been much fewer.
Mr. Jenkin hopes the public mood will begin swinging away from permissive attitudes when his publicity campaign gets under way and the full extent of the drinking problem in Britain is realized.