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UK Bans Drinking Contests, Other Alcohol Promotions

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LONDON — Bar-going Britons may soon be bidding goodbye to their country's all-you-can-drink deals – as well as some of their more outlandish drinking games.

The government said Tuesday it was banning irresponsible promotions and boozy contests such as the "dentist's chair" – where alcohol is poured directly into customers' mouths – in an effort to tackle Britain's binge-drinking problem.

The government says the ban will limit binge-drinking, but health experts say the nation's deepening alcohol problem would best be tackled by imposing higher minimum prices on Britain's cheap booze.

The raft of new measures is "better than nothing," according to Carys Davis, spokeswoman for Britain's Alcohol Concern charity. But she said the restrictions "seem tame" compared to what the government could do by ending pricing practices that result in alcohol selling for less than water.

"You'd be hard-pushed to find a health organization that doesn't support minimum pricing," she said.

Britain's alcohol consumption has risen by 40 percent over the past four decades, although per-capita drinking is still lower than in many other European countries – including Russia, Spain, Germany and France.

Experts say that Britons' binge-drinking ways are increasingly putting their health at risk.

A parliamentary report published in December warned that 3 million Britons were addicted to alcohol. Earlier this month, The Sun tabloid carried a photo montage of drunken New Year's Eve revelers, including an apparently drunk woman lying face down in the snow. And on Tuesday, a government-commissioned poll suggested that 1 out of 4 Britons avoided some neighborhoods due to disorder relating to alcohol.

Government statistics suggest the country's alcohol-related death rate has doubled since 1991. Last year, Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson warned: "Cheap alcohol is killing us as never before."

Home Secretary Alan Johnson told BBC radio Tuesday that he had not ruled out minimum pricing, but he did not want to penalize "responsible drinkers on low incomes."

Instead, he would outlaw some of the country's more excessive promotions – including games in which customers are encouraged to drink against a time limit, free drink deals for groups such as women or people under 25, half-price deals based on sports games, and prize giveaways for downing a set amount of booze in a 24-hour period.

All-you-can-drink deals would also be outlawed, as would the so-called "dentist's chair," where customers are held down against a chair and alcohol is squirted into their mouths.

"The major point here is we are looking to target those who are acting irresponsibly," Johnson later told BBC television.

But some Britons feel the rules are a sign of a "nanny state" interfering with the right to drink.

"As long as people aren't creating a mess, I don't think games should be banned," said student Gabby Caldera. "It's fun between a group of friends."

But Jean Sweeney, a cook in her 40s, thought the ban was a good idea.

"Setting limitations is good," she said. "It could stop alcoholism."

The new rules apply to England and Wales. Officials in Scotland have already gone further, with authorities announcing plans to introduce a minimum price. Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon argues that such pricing would "combat the dirt-cheap ciders, lagers and low-grade spirits favored by problem drinkers."

The new rules – expected to come into effect this year after being approved by Parliament – would also tighten age-verification laws and force bars to offer tap water for free.

The restrictions 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 such standards were being widely ignored.

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

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 sold through supermarkets.

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

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Associated Press Writer Chelsea Arnold contributed to this report.

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