Boozy Britain 'on road to Hogarth's Gin Lane'

(Filed: 22/03/2006)

William Hogarth's "Gin Lane", painted in 1751, showed what life was like in London's 18th Century streets with its drunks.

The around-the-clock availability of cheap alcohol could cause a health crisis reminiscent of the horrors of William Hogarth's Gin Lane, a leading liver expert will warn today.

Prof Ian Gilmore will say Government policies including last year's change in licensing laws are unlikely to stem the tide of increasing consumption and related health problems.

He will summon up Hogarth's 18th century image of debauchery, neglect and violence to describe his fears in a speech to the annual conference of the British Society of Gastroenterology in Birmingham.

New licensing laws that came into force in November allowed 70,000 pubs, clubs and supermarkets to stay open beyond 11pm, including 1,100 businesses that have taken up their new right to open 24 hours a day.

Alcohol consumption has doubled since the 1960s and research published earlier this year showed deaths from liver cirrhosis have increased markedly in Britain while falling in most other European countries since the 1950s.

Prof Gilmore, a liver specialist at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, said yesterday that allowing shops to sell alcohol "next to bread and milk" around the clock would fuel the upward consumption trend, and allowing pubs to stay open later would do nothing to stem it.

"I remain concerned that the likelihood is that consumption will continue to increase year on year. In modern times alcohol has never been cheaper or more available. We are in a time of cheap alcohol reminiscent of Hogarth's Gin Lane.

"While pubs and clubs being open an extra hour or two does not overly concern me, it's the widespread, around-the-clock availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets, corner shops and petrol stations that is likely to fuel consumption.

"In many civilised countries alcohol is available either from separate shops, or at least from separate sections within supermarkets. Here it is next to the bread and milk. This easy availability encourages drinking at home, and this is what is driving the damage to health, just as much as binge-drinking in pubs and bars.

"Government alcohol policy focuses on crime and disorder and binge drinkers and is in danger of overlooking those drinking regularly and excessively at home."

According to research published in the Lancet in January, mortality from liver cirrhosis among men grew by two thirds in England and Wales and doubled in Scotland during the 1990s. In women, deaths increased by almost half over the same period.

Apart from Britain, only Finland, Ireland and the Netherlands saw an increase in deaths from liver disease from 1991 to 2001 in Europe.

Between 1957-1961 and 1997-2001, the number of deaths from liver cirrhosis in England and Wales jumped from 3.4 to 14.1 per 100,000 in men and from 2.2 to 7.7 per 100,000 for women, according to World Health Organisation data.

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