Time ticking away for Happy Hour
British pubs face last call for cheap alcohol sales.
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"It's not just an urban myth – I've seen loads of pubs close round here," says Fred Aylett, a pub landlord for 15 years, who now runs a sports bar in Bristol. "You've got the combination of a smoking ban and people with less disposable income. People have good DVD players, home cinemas, so why not stay at home?"Skip to next paragraph
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Perhaps the biggest factor in the pub's decline has been the rise of the supermarket. Alcohol can cost up to seven times more at a pub than in a market. Almost half of the beer drunk in Britain is bought not in pubs, but in retail outlets, where it can be cheaper than water.
Mr. Aylett and other pub owners insist that if pubs are to face tougher rules on alcohol pricing, then supermarkets ought to face the same curbs. Most pubs, says Aylett, don't discount alcohol that much "and even if they do, they are nowhere near as cheap as what you pay in the supermarket." He highlights a disturbing tendency for "preloading," in which people will fill up on cheap supermarket alcohol before going out to carouse in city centers. Pubs by contrast, with trained staff and door security, are able to monitor and moderate drinkers.
John Grogan, a Labour member of parliament and critic of cheap alcohol promotions, says that if the government fails to take robust action against supermarkets, as well as pubs, "that will be a gaping hole in the strategy."
Mr. Grogan adds, "If you are serious about tackling binge drinking on public-health grounds or public-order grounds, then cheap supermarket alcohol is at the root of the problem."
The government says it has both supermarkets and pubs in its cross hairs but it has yet to reveal the full details of its new code of conduct, and it remains to be seen how level the new playing field will be.
Many pubs have moved beyond concepts like happy hour to other means, particularly food. "Pubs now serve more meals than restaurants across Britain," says Gareth Barrett, of the British Beer and Pub Association. "Pubs that can't offer food because of size or location are the ones that are suffering."
Hundreds more pubs will undoubtedly call "last orders" as the recession bites. But Britain still has more than 50,000 pubs and Grogan remains convinced the industry will survive. "I don't think the pub is by any means dead yet," he says. "Hillaire Belloc said the pub was the very heart of England, and there's life in that saying yet."
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