By Traci Watson, Special for USA TODAY
LONDON - On a mild Friday night in the London party district called
Camden, the local pubs are surprisingly quiet. It's the local
supermarkets that are bustling - and not with shoppers buying milk.
of revelers stream into the stores to snap up bargain-priced booze. At
one shop a two-liter bottle of hard cider sells for $3.18, the same as a
two-liter bottle of Coke.
"When we're going out, we get drunk on the cheapest spirits beforehand - sort of saving money," says Alex James, also a student.
politicians want to dampen the fun. A proposal under review would set a
minimum price for alcohol in England and Wales, raising the cost of a
supermarket-brand bottle of vodka, for example, from $13.95 to $18.86.
proposal would also ban "multi-buys," such as two-for-one specials in
supermarkets and liquor stores. Public comment on the proposal began
last month and will continue into early next year.
just an ordinary commodity that can be left to the market like soap
powder," says Ian Gilmore of the Royal College of Physicians. "It's
responsible for a huge amount of damage to innocent victims."
much of the 20th century Britons drank moderately, says James Nicholls
of Alcohol Research UK, a non-profit group. But in the last few decades,
alcohol, especially beer, became vastly more affordable.
Chris Theobald was shopping on a Camden street where $5 will buy a
bottle of fortified wine with the alcohol content of seven bottles of
Such prices are "crazy," Theobald says, but he concedes
that the deals are helpful when "you want to get drunk quickly. ... It's
what we do."
Affordability is one factor among several that has
boosted English alcohol intake, Nicholls says. British alcohol
consumption per person rose 19% from 1980 to 2007, according to the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Over the same
period, U.S. alcohol consumption per person dropped 17%.
have also become renowned as some of Europe's heaviest binge drinkers,
or drinkers who quaff five or more drinks at a sitting. A 2010 survey
found more people in Britain than anywhere else in Europe have at least
10 drinks a day on the days when they drink.
"I thought we
were alcoholics," says Alexander Ledvinka, a London bartender, speaking
of his countrymen in the Czech Republic. But at the London party hubs of
Leicester Square and Covent Garden, "I've never seen that many drunk
people in one place."
The proposal wouldn't affect drink prices in pubs and restaurants nor would anything besides cut-rate booze rise in cost.
the very idea of setting a floor on the price of alcohol has
infuriated free-market proponents and angered many ordinary Britons.
"A nanny state that dictates what to drink will soon be telling us how to think," the Daily Mail, a conservative newspaper, fumed.
does the government want to stop people from having fun?" asked Lia
Girandola, a London real-estate agent out with friends in Camden.
Drinking "is what people do to socialize."
officials say drinking is not all polite merriment and something must be
done to reduce alcohol's toll on society.
Photos of drunken
young women lying on the sidewalk or retching in alleys are a staple of
the British tabloids. Alcohol-related hospital admissions have shot up
in England. Twenty years ago, U.K. deaths from liver disease were on a
par with rates in Australia and Scandinavia. Now U.K. rates are double
the rates in those countries.
Government officials including
Prime Minister David Cameron say there'd be widespread benefits to
banning dirt-cheap booze, which in Britain is favored by those who drink
A minimum price would help tackle the problem drinkers
without much impact on sensible drinkers, according to a government
analysis. The government forecasts the price hike will prod the heaviest
drinkers - such as men who regularly drink more than five bottles of
wine a week - to cut their intake by 5.9% per year, moderate drinkers by
As with any price increases, however, people with less money will be forced to make choices that the wealthier will not.
proposal will "adversely penalize" low-income moderate drinkers, who
will be hard-hit, says Simon Russell of the National Association of
Cider Makers. And many are skeptical that even a price hike can get
drinkers to knock back one fewer drinks.
If prices rose, "you wouldn't drink less before you went out for a night," James says. "You'd spend a little more."