LONDON — The girls slumped in wheelchairs look barely conscious, their blond heads lolling above the plastic vomit bags tied like bibs around their necks.
It was an hour to midnight on a Friday, and the two girls, who look no older than 18, were being wheeled from an ambulance to a clinic set up discreetly in a dark alley in London’s Soho entertainment district.
They were the first of many to be picked up that night by the ambulance, known as a “booze bus,” and carried to the clinic - both government services dedicated to keeping drunk people out of trouble and out of emergency rooms.
Binge drinking has reached crisis levels in Britain, health experts say, costing the cash-strapped National Health Service $4.4 billion a year, including the cost of hospital admissions related to booze-fueled violence and longer-term health problems.
Unlike all other major health threats, liver disease is on the rise in Britain, increasing by 25 percent in the last decade and causing a record level of deaths, according to recent government figures.
Doctors believe rising obesity is combining with heavy drinking to fuel the spike in liver disease, which is hitting more young people than ever.
“Undoubtedly professionals are seeing more [patients] in their late-20s to mid-30s, which would have been unusual 20 years ago,” said Chris Day, a liver disease specialist at Newcastle University.
Drunk in Soho
On the streets of Soho, most people are too busy drinking to notice passed-out partyers.
Soho, lined with pubs and nightclubs, was just beginning to get rowdy: Men chasing each other and shrieking like teenagers; women stumbling and falling over in heels too high and skirts too short.
Soon the sidewalks were littered with empty beer bottles and reeking puddles.
Such public displays of extreme drunkenness are inexplicable and shocking to many foreigners living in Britain, even those who hail from heavy-drinking cultures.
“[At home] it’s embarrassing to be drunk. Here it’s kind of something you brag about,” said Kaisa Toroskainen, a Finnish graduate student in London having a beer with her friends.
The headline-grabbing figures about ever-younger liver disease victims may seem to suggest that Britain has quite recently turned into a nation of raging alcoholics.
It’s not news that the British like their tipple. This is, after all, a nation known around the world for its ales and its pubs.