LONDON – Like some other Londoners, Chantal Faraut celebrated late Thursday night with a few drinks in one of the many pubs no longer forced to close at 11 p.m.
As far as she's concerned, that early closing time never suited an international city like London. So she welcomes the fact that England and Wales have just relaxed their drinking laws, allowing many pubs to stay open later, some for 24 hours.
"In principal, it's a great idea" said Faraut, 24, as she and her friend, Rosalyn Tinneny, 46, enjoyed a few glasses of red wine at the Kings Head, a traditional, smoke-filled, neighborhood pub in the Earl's Court section central London, where many people sat at wooden tables, knocking back pints of beer and other drinks.
But both of them are worried about what may happen during the extended drinking hours in towns and cities outside central London, where binge drinking can be a problem among young people.
"If people knew how to behave, it would work. But I think there's a problem in England with drinking, especially in places outside London like the city of Blackpool, where I grew up," Faraut said in an interview. "The mentality is different there. Some people just don't know how to pace themselves with alcohol."
Some police forces are worried, too, about what may happen Saturday and Sunday, the first weekend when the new laws will be in effect, even though Thursday, the first full weekday, was uneventful.
In the southwestern counties of Devon and Cornwall, authorities said they will put undercover officers in pubs to fine staff members who serve liquor to visibly drunk customers. The $140 fine is part of a strategy by police to tackle drunkenness as pubs and private clubs that stay open longer under the new licensing laws.
In Blandford Forum in southern England, customers at the Railway Hotel pub stopped drinking at 11 p.m. as usual on Wednesday night, then sipped tea or coffee until the bar reopened early Thursday, just after midnight.
The landlord, Nigel Jones, kept the bar open until the last customer left at 3:45 a.m.
"Of course it's not going to turn us into alcoholics," said Jones.
"Binge drinking is about people drinking too much in a short space of time. It's nothing to do with giving people extended licensing laws and longer to drink."
The central government hopes the change in laws that had been in effect since World War I will stop the flood of drunks onto city streets just after the 11 p.m. closing time. But opponents say British consumption of alcohol — among the most notorious, although hardly the heaviest, in Europe — should not be encouraged.
"We already see people who have been injured because they have drunk too much," said Martin Shalley of the British Association for Emergency Medicine. "I think this is now going to occur a lot more frequently."
Government Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said the closing time had been "unfair in principle and wrong in practice." She also said the new laws give police "unprecedented powers to crack down on alcohol-fueled violence." But Home Secretary Charles Clarke acknowledged on Wednesday that recorded crime is expected to rise because more police resources will be targeted at alcohol-related offenses.
The new rules allow pubs, bars, shops, restaurants and clubs to apply to open any hours they like, although each license must be approved by local authorities.
Thousands of pubs and bars have been granted later licenses under the new rules, although the vast majority have asked for an extra hour or two. Only 700 establishments, including 240 pubs, applied for licenses for around-the-clock sales, according to government figures.
At the Kings Head pub, which is now expected to close at midnight on weekdays, Jabu Siphika, a 28-year-old travel agent who was enjoying a pint of beer, said the new time will be fairer for people who don't have day jobs.
"Under the new law, people who work nights can go out for a drink when they get off work in the early morning," he said.