Alcohol abuse? Forget it. The need of the hour is saving the pub culture, say British politicians.
The famed UK pubs are closing down, 37 a week, owing to the credit crunch, cheap supermarket prices and the smoking ban.
On top of it, they were hit by a further 8 per cent rise in alcohol duty last week
Their fears intensified after Chancellor Alistair Darling imposed new duties on beer in Monday's pre-Budget report, which the pub industry says will more than cancel out the benefit of a 2.5 per cent cut in VAT, which will only apply until 1 January 2010.
The British Beer and Pub Association said last night that it was one of the only parts of the economy that did not receive a helping hand from Darling and warned that the average price of a pint would top £3 by the end of the year, and nudge ever closer to £4 in London.
The UK beer and pub sector, which employs 600,000 people, is also braced for ministers to announce a series of rules to reduce antisocial behaviour and improve health, including bans on 'happy hour' promotions and cigarette vending machines - moves that it insists will increase costs and cut revenues.
Gerry Sutcliffe, the licensing minister and a long-standing supporter of the industry, said that while ministers were right to encourage responsible drinking, they should be aware of the negative effects that wider policy was having. 'We have to make sure we are aware of the impact of what we do and that we support community pubs,' he said. 'Otherwise many more could close.'
A report by a cross-party group of MPs last month found that more than 60 per cent of villages no longer have a pub. The rate of pub closures is 33 per cent up on 2007, when 1,409 closed, according to the British Beer and Pub Association. The Campaign for Real Ale said 7,500 pubs could go by the end of 2012.
Sutcliffe is now pushing for changes to the licensing system that will make it easier and cheaper for pubs to extend their range of services without having to pay hefty sums to rewrite their licensing agreements. 'We are determined to make it easier for them,' said a government spokesman.
Sutcliffe is one of several ministers who have urged Gordon Brown to take the pressure off publicans by banning supermarkets from selling cheap alcohol. Recently Asda was charging 90p for a four-pack of Skol lager.
John Grogan, chairman of the all-party parliamentary beer group, said the government had to recognise that pubs - like post offices - were vital to communities. 'It is now a race against time to convince ministers that the British pub has as valuable a place in our community [as the local post office] and is just as much under threat,' he said.
New licensing laws in Scotland include powers to fix alcohol prices to stop cut-price promotions and 'happy hours'. Ministers in Edinburgh say they might seek to set minimum prices.
More than 60 MPs have already signed a motion calling for the planned rises in beer duties to be postponed or dropped altogether.
And there is call for lifting the ban on smoking in pubs. Surely, it's time the Government and Welsh Assembly had a re-think regarding the smoking ban in pubs and clubs? I don't think there is a smoker anywhere that doesn't understand that people who don't smoke should not have to breathe smoke in public places. But surely a limited amount of licences could be granted to allow some premises to at least have a smoking area inside, or maybe even places where it is allowed anywhere on the premises?, wailed a columnist.
We have had nothing but a witch-hunt against smokers for years now, and it's about time there was some common sense.