Time ticking away for Happy Hour
British pubs face last call for cheap alcohol sales.
Stroll through the center of this (or any other English) town in the latter part of the afternoon, and the options for cheap alcoholic refreshment are plentiful.Skip to next paragraph
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On one corner, a pub called Acorn 20 is offering deep discounts on wines and beer until 8 p.m. Nearby, The Slug and Lettuce entices customers with cheap pitchers of cocktails.
Happy hour is in full swing – only these days, given the length of time it endures, it should probably be called happy hours.
But for how much longer? With police complaining about the insidious connection between alcohol, crime, and violence, and the government concerned about the rising incidence of "binge drinking," particularly among British youths, government ministers are poised to crack down on the practice of luring customers with deeply discounted alcohol.
"We're conscious that alcohol is a factor in half of all violent crime, and it's right that people are concerned," says one government official. "The measures will be about tackling a minority who ruin it for everyone else."
A new mandatory code of conduct, proposed in the government's new legislative program in the traditional Queen's Speech Wednesday, will take aim at a colorful array of inventive but questionable marketing gimmicks.
With pub owners devising ever-more ingenious ways to secure customers, happy hour no longer just means 60 minutes of cheap drinks.
Ministers are particularly keen to ban notions like "all you can drink for a tenner [10 pounds, or $15]," free drinks for women, and free drinks until the first goal is scored in a soccer match (an expensive giveaway if it ends in a 0-0 tie).
Jacqui Smith, the British home secretary, summed it up recently when she turned up her nose up at scenes that regularly mar British weekend cityscapes, "I don't think any of us want to have our city centers with people lying on the pavements and being sick."
The new anti-alcohol offensive highlights two conflicting trends in modern Britain.
The first is a push by a government determined to protect people from themselves and their vices – drinking, smoking, fatty foods, and sedentary lifestyles. This is not just altruism: Healthy behavior saves money. Alcohol abuse is estimated to cost Britain $37 billion annually.
The second trend involves an attempt to save an iconic institution even older than parliamentary government itself: the British pub. For centuries the nexus of town and country life and the embodiment of the pastoral idyll, the English public house has lately fallen on hard times. Changing social habits, the proliferation of alternative leisure pursuits, competition from retailers, and the government's ban on smoking in public places have all helped to empty bar stools.
A recent parliamentary report found that more than 60 percent of villages no longer have a pub. Five hostelries now shut down every day in Britain. Industry groups warn that without help, another 7,500 will close in the next four years.
By the numbers: Drinking in Britain
19 – Percentage of residents who consume five or more drinks weekly.
15 – Percentage EU-wide of weekly "binge" drinkers.
40 – Percentage jump in underage drinking in Britain from 2006 to 2007.
39 – Percentage of Britons who would drink less if prices jumped 25 percent.
60 – Number of Britons who die each day from alcohol-related conditions.
13 – The age at which more children have reported drinking than not.
Source: Alcohol Concern UK, and EU data