Time ticking away for Happy Hour

British pubs face last call for cheap alcohol sales.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff/file
Pub crawl: Revellers crowded outside a London pub on a week night in 2006. Britain is considering reining in happy hour.

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.

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.

"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?"

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."

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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

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