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Scottish Ads Target Alcohol Use, Ritual

August 22, 2006

EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) _ Amid the chrome and beech decor of the Henry J. Beans cocktail bar, a time-honored tradition is being played out over a lunchtime drink: Dozens of drinkers are buying rounds for friends and colleagues _ a ritual deeply ingrained in the Scottish psyche.

Now the round is under threat from Scottish lawmakers who believe the custom feeds into Scotland’s notorious alcohol problems by creating enormous social pressure on pub-goers to take their turn buying drinks.

Emboldened by the successful introduction of a smoking ban in public places this March, Scotland’s national government last week launched the five-week advertising campaign aimed at ending the practice that it being shown on TV, movie theaters and billboards. It depicts a man in his mid-20s being pressured by friends to take part in rounds. He eventually passes out in the street. As he slumps against a fence it warns: ``Alcohol: Don’t push it.″

``Its crazy, a case of the nanny state gone mad,″ said businesswoman Sheena McCade, who was taking advantage of a lunchtime two-for-one offer to buy a round of four drinks for friends.

``Its easy to bring in a smoking ban, but this telling people what their spending and consumption habits should be. That to your average Scot is a gross intrusion of privacy.″

Round-buying is a cherished tradition throughout Britain and in Ireland, but it’s only in Scotland that lawmakers are trying to end the ritual.

From the most glamorous bars to seedy spit-and-sawdust pubs, drinking alcohol is a Scottish pastime that ranks in importance alongside soccer, history, politics and meat pies. The ritual of the round ranks among the worlds most hazardous etiquette exchanges and can be as fraught as a first business meeting in Japan or courting Sicilian style.

Each round must be honored and reciprocated as a symbol of bonhomie, generosity and swagger.

The rules are simple:

_ If you accept a drink you must also buy a round. (But if you are celebrating your birthday, or a new baby, you are exempted.)

_ Each offer of a round must be accepted and reciprocated with drinks of equal value. Never offer a beer to someone who has just bought a bottle of champagne.

_ If you have had enough to drink, you can quit, but you must make sure you have honored the round by buying everyone a drink.

_ Not to buy a round is a great insult and round dodgers gain reputations as mean and untrustworthy. They usually are not invited out again.

``The worst round dodger I know is a guy who leaves the pub for a bag of chips (fries) every time its his round,″ said Oliver Berrill, a 20-year-old law student at Edinburgh University.

Edinburgh has no shortage of pubs and the city claims the highest number of licensed premises per head of population in Europe at about 188 people per pub. With the legal drinking age at 18 and the Edinburgh Festivals in full swing, the pubs in the city center have been packed with drinkers.

At the Pear Tree pub, near Edinburgh University, lunchtime drinkers were ignoring the new advice and busily buying rounds.

The building dates from the 1600s and was once the home of Robert Burns patron Dr. Thomas Blacklock. The interior is darkly lit and, to the uninitiated, slightly mysterious. It is nonetheless typical, with large leather sofas where the lively conversation has a cosmopolitan air.

``Edinburgh is the home of the Scottish Enlightenment,″ said Tim McPhail, a recent arts graduate, who was sipping a pint of heavy, a local dark beer, on a large red sofa. ``We believe in liberty and freedom and that means the liberty and freedom to buy your pals a drink.″

The Scottish government’s dilemma is clear. Drinking is big business in Scotland with breweries and scotch whisky distilleries making a major contribution to the 11 billion pounds (US$20.6 million (euro16.09 million) in taxes. The drinks and hospitality sector is the biggest employer in the country, accounting for more than 200,000 jobs.

But alcohol is also highly destructive. The number of alcohol-related deaths is rising faster in Scotland than anywhere else in Europe. Male deaths from cirrhosis of the liver have quadrupled in the last 50 years. The death rate for women has trebled in the same period.

Lurid headlines of out-of-control youngsters binge drinking regularly appear in the press. Doctors have warned that drunk children as young as 11 have been admitted to emergency wards.

As if to hammer home the point opposition lawmakers on Friday said that the four year ``Healthier Scotland″ campaign, in which millions of pounds (dollars, euros) had been spent on alcohol health promotion, had failed to stem the tide of liquor abuse.

``Round buying is a nice aspect of Scottish culture, but for people who have a problem stopping, or might drink more than they can handle, it is safer to buy individual drinks,″ says Dr Jonathan Chick, a psychiatrist with the Lothian Alcohol Problems service.

Like Scandinavia, Iceland and other parts of northern Europe, drinking features heavily in the culture and leisure time. Dusk falls as early as 4 p.m. in the winter and the long dark nights have encouraged a culture of knocking back a few while sitting by the fireside, telling stories. It originates from the 16th Century up to the Victorian age where each person would pour out a dram from their own whisky bottle which they would bring to save the host’s expense, said Kate Smith, a Scottish culture academic from Glasgow University.

``Similar to a reel from Highland dancing each participant takes a turn. A round is a circle and the circle must be completed by each drinker buying a round. Everyone in your circle, male or female, takes their turn in buying everyone a drink,″ Smith said.

Back at Henry J Beans, Berrill, who turns 21 next month, is contemplating a recent trip to the United States where he was too young to buy a drink.

``I think prohibition turns people crazy,″ he said. ``You hear these stories of American students hitting the bars in Mexico big style. They’re not used to it and they are not encouraged to drink responsibly because it is denied them till a late age.″

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