LONDON – The traditional British pub is in peril.
Squeezed by a nationwide smoking ban, rising costs, competition from supermarkets and the economic downturn, the pub industry reported Monday that beer sales have fallen to their lowest level since the Great Depression.
Pub managers around the country are now pulling some 14 million pints a day, 1.6 million fewer than last year and 7 million less than at the height of the market in 1979.
The pressures on the industry are speeding up a long-term decline — more than 1,400 pubs called last orders for the final time in 2007 and the Campaign for Real Ale claims that more than half Britain's villages are "dry" for the first time since the Norman Conquest of 1066.
Rob Hayward, the chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, whose members brew 98 percent of Britain's beer and include nearly two-thirds of the country's pubs, urged the government to rethink heavy taxes which the industry blames in large part for its woes.
"We need a change of approach from the government," Hayward said. "Brewing is a major industry, beer our national drink and pubs a treasured part of our national culture."
The group's Quarterly Beer Barometer revealed that total beer sales were 4.5 percent lower between April and June this year, compared with the same quarter last year.
Beer sales in pubs fell even further, sinking 10.6 percent, while sales in shops and supermarkets rose 3.8 percent.
Pubs have repeatedly criticized supermarkets for selling multipacks of drinks at below cost to entice custom.
However, there are fears that the sliding pub beer sales will have the effect of spurring on another, less attractive, aspect of British culture as cash-strapped pub owners return to sales promotions that encourage binge drinking — such as selling cheap drinks until a team scores in a soccer match.
Around half of Britain's 57,000 pubs have ditched a voluntary code banning aggressive happy-hour deals and other promotions after the beer and pub organization said it could be in breach of European competition law, prompting police to call on the government to step in. That has raised speculation about an intense price war among pubs in Britain's major cities and towns.
"Sadly, the trade repeatedly shows that it cannot be relied upon to consistently act in a responsible way," said Chris Allison, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Some pubs are beefing up the food side of the business to make up for declining beer sales. Mitchells & Butlers, Britain's second largest pub group, revealed last week that beer now accounts for just a quarter of all revenue but that it now serves some 110 million meals to customers each year.
Enterprise Inns, which has about 7,700 pubs, said it has had to give more help to licensees who are having to cope with difficult trading conditions.
After battling with the smoking ban in England, which marked its first anniversary this month, the pub chain said it was struggling to cope with pressures on consumers' disposable income, such as high mortgage costs, petrol prices and gloomy sentiment.
However, in good news for the trade, some consumers suggested that traditional pubs could survive by transforming to meet new demand.
Ian White, 44, an IT director for a hospital, a nonsmoker visiting London from Leeds with his wife and three sons, said he goes to the pub more these days.
"They're increasingly more friendly to families, the quality of the food has increased," White said. "The ones that are closing aren't seeing the threat and the opportunity. Their old clientele who just wanted to booze and smoke are less inclined to go, but people like me are more inclined to go."