UK Bans Drinking Contests, Forces Pubs to Offer Tap Water

Officials will ban drinking contests in bars and force pub owners to offer patrons tap water in a bid to help tackle Britain's boozy culture, the government said Tuesday.

Doctors and health lobbyists said, however, that the government had failed to wield its most effective weapon — the imposition of minimum price controls on alcohol.

The raft of new measures is "better than nothing," according to Carys Davis, spokeswoman for the Alcohol Concern charity. She said "it does seem tame," although she acknowledged that the ban on drinking contests and other promotions could help control bingeing.

Alcohol consumption has emerged as a political issue in recent years in Britain. Weekends see many town centers awash with young people staggering from one bar to the next, and government statistics suggest the country's alcohol-related death rate has doubled since 1991.

Last year Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson suggested price controls could lead to nearly 100,000 fewer hospital admissions and 45,000 fewer crimes a year.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson told BBC radio Tuesday that he hadn't ruled out minimum pricing, but he didn't want to penalize "responsible drinkers on low incomes."

The new rules — expected to come into affect this year after being approved by Parliament — would ban speed-drinking competitions and all-you-can-drink offers. Bars would be required to offer drinks in smaller measures and tap water for free.

The rules are similar to a voluntary code drawn up by the Beer and Pub Association and adopted by much of Britain's alcohol industry in 2005. The code called for ending "irresponsible promotions," including all-you-can-drink offers, but a 2008 government-ordered report said the standards were being widely ignored.

"The industry has so far proved that it isn't able to regulate itself," Davis said.

The Beer and Pub Association said it supported measures to deal with problem drinking, but said the government was unfairly targeting bars because most of Britain's booze was now being sold through supermarkets.

"Pubs are struggling, and the country is in recession. This is not the time for the Home Office to be burying business in yet more unnecessary red tape," association chief executive Brigid Simmonds said.