On a mild Friday night in the London party district called Camden, the pubs are surprisingly quiet. It's the supermarkets that are bustling -- and not with shoppers buying milk.
Crowds of revelers stream into the stores to snap up bargain-priced booze. At one shop, a 2-liter bottle of hard cider sells for $3.18, the same as a 2-liter bottle of Coke.
"When we're going out, we get drunk on the cheapest spirits beforehand -- sort of saving money," says Alex James, a student.
British 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.
The proposal would 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.
"Alcohol isn't 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."
For much of the 20th century, Britons drank moderately, says James Nicholls of Alcohol Research UK, a non-profit group. But in the past few decades, alcohol, especially beer, became vastly more affordable.
Student 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 beer.
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%.
Brits have 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. 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.
"Why 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."
Public-health 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, United Kingdom deaths from liver disease were on 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 would be widespread benefits to banning dirt-cheap booze, which in Britain is favored by those who drink to excess.
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 1.2%.
As with any price increases, people with less money will be forced to make choices that the wealthier will not.
The proposal will "adversely penalize" low-income moderate drinkers, who will be hard-hit, says Simon Russell of the National Association of Cider Makers.
Many people are skeptical that even a price hike can get drinkers to knock back 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."
Most Popular Stories
- Schedule packed with talent at the Fox
- Entrepreneurs Chase Social Media
- European Car Sales up First Time in 20 Months
- I never set out to be a role model but it's great to be one ; IN THE HOTSEATBetter known by his stage name Wretch 32, Jermaine Sinclair is a 28-year-old rapper from London. In 2011 his debut album Black and White sold over a million copies and scored three top five singles. His latest single Blackout was released this week
- The Blade, Toledo, Ohio, TK Barger column
- Promoter McLean 'provided more musical joy than Dylan and Prince combined'
- Emirati announces new film project at Cannes
- Manila's Hollywood Week
- SINCE YOU ASKED [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]
- SET PHASERS TO DUMB Spock emotional and in love? Nonstop explosions? The highly illogical enterprise of J.J. Abrams' 'Star Trek'