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(Arkady Chubykin)
(Arkady Chubykin)

U.K. moves to curb excessive drinking with ban on super-cheap liquor Add to ...

It’s an uphill battle in a country where pubs are known as “boozers” and governments have long sought to curb excessive drinking.

After years of growing concern about heavy drinking and its attendant social problems, the British government moved Friday toward enforcing minimum alcohol prices.

It’s the latest salvo in a campaign that has ebbed and flowed for centuries. More than 250 years ago, William Hogarth drew Gin Lane and Beer Street as part of a campaign to stop citizens drinking gin, seen as the scourge of its day, and enjoy ale instead.

Fast-forward a few centuries and alcohol in all its forms is once again at the top of the political agenda. Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged Friday that a minimum price would not be popular, but argued it was the right thing to do.

The minimum has not been determined and the government is using 40 pence per unit (about $1.27 Canadian for a pint, which is considered two units) to make projections about the plan’s effects. Under such an increase, someone deemed a “harmful” drinker – defined as a woman who has up to 35 units each week or man who has up to 50 units weekly – can expect to pay the equivalent of $160-$215 more each year.

The government said the change will not hurt pubs and is designed to prevent pre-drinking.

“When beer is cheaper than water, it’s just too easy for people to get drunk on cheap alcohol at home before they even set foot in the pub,” Mr. Cameron said in a statement. “So we are going to introduce a new minimum unit price – so for the first time it will be illegal for shops to sell alcohol for less than this set price per unit.”

Commentators have wrung their hands for years about a culture of heavy drinking by Britons.

Most experts agree there is a serious problem. Health-care costs run into the billions and there are around one million alcohol-related crimes annually. The Lancet said last month that there would be 210,000 preventable deaths in England and Wales in the next two decades unless reforms were made.

A few tabloids have taken to pointing a gleefully shaming finger, sparking accusations that class contempt underlies some of the commentary. But research shows the inclination to over-imbibe goes across social lines.

And leaders are not exempt. In illustrating its new approach, the British government suggested Friday that a normal glass of wine holds eight to 10 ounces.

Mr. Cameron also may not be the best standard-bearer for a message of moderate drinking. Along with a several other Tory stalwarts – including Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Boris Johnson, Lord Mayor of London – he was a member of Oxford University’s notorious Bullingdon Club. An exclusive group noted for its excessive drinking, members were known for smashing up establishments in which they held their parties.

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