updated 7/28/2008 3:05:30 PM ET 2008-07-28T19:05:30

The iconic British pint is fast losing ground as the national drink, with a report out Monday showing beer sales in pubs slumping to their lowest level since the Great Depression.

Squeezed by a nationwide smoking ban, rising costs, competition from supermarkets and the economic downturn, beer sales fell 4.5 percent between April and June this year, compared with the same quarter last year.

"Most people are a bit bored with beer," said Anthony Buck, a manager at the Lock 17 bar in Camden.

But how can this be? This, after all is a drink which has been such a staple across the country that bars in many a rural pub is still adorned with personalized tankers for regular imbibers.

Buck said that beer was being overtaken by drinks like hard cider, which "is a lot more fashionable and people tend to pick up on the trends."

The British Beer and Pub Association's Quarterly Beer Barometer revealed that pub managers around the country are now pulling around 14 million pints a day — a fair amount — but some 1.6 million fewer than last year and 7 million less than at the height of the market in 1979.

In Britain, the BBPA's quarterly barometer also highlighted the growing trend for drinkers to enjoy a pint in the comfort of their own home instead of at the pub. While overall sales are down, sales in shops and supermarkets rose nearly 4 percent.

Pubs have repeatedly criticized supermarkets for selling multipacks of drinks at below cost to entice custom.

"I do more drinking at home now than at the pubs — they're more for special occasions since it's becoming so expensive," said Chris Hanson, 43, a carpenter heading into a grocer in the London neighborhood of Camden. "I used to go (to the pub) two or three times a week after work, but now I just stay at home and go once every now and again."

The BBPA, whose members brew 98 percent of Britain's beer and include nearly two-thirds of the country's pubs, fear the declining sales will speed up the closure of pubs and clubs around the country.

More than 1,400 pubs called last orders for the final time in 2007 and the Campaign for Real Ale claims that more than half Britain's villages are "dry" for the first time since the Norman Conquest of 1066.

BBPA chief executive Rob Hayward urged the government to rethink the heavy taxes on alcohol, accounting for some 90 million pounds (around US$180 million) of revenue each year, which the industry blames in large part for its woes.

"We need a change of approach from the government," Hayward said. "Brewing is a major industry, beer our national drink and pubs a treasured part of our national culture."

However, there are fears that the sliding pub beer sales will have the effect of spurring on another, less attractive, aspect of British culture as cash-strapped pub owners return to sales promotions that encourage binge drinking — such as selling cheap drinks until a team scores in a soccer match.

Around half of Britain's 57,000 pubs have ditched a voluntary code banning aggressive happy-hour deals and other promotions after the beer and pub organization said it could be in breach of European competition law, prompting police to call on the government to step in. That has raised speculation about an intense price war among pubs in Britain's major cities and towns.

"Sadly, the trade repeatedly shows that it cannot be relied upon to consistently act in a responsible way," said Chris Allison, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Some pubs are beefing up the food side of the business to make up for declining beer sales. Mitchells & Butlers, Britain's second largest pub group, revealed last week that beer now accounts for just a quarter of all revenue but that it now serves some 110 million meals to customers each year.

Enterprise Inns, which has about 7,700 pubs, said it has had to give more help to licensees who are having to cope with difficult trading conditions.

After battling with the smoking ban in England, which marked its first anniversary this month, the pub chain said it was struggling to cope with pressures on consumers' disposable income, such as high mortgage costs, petrol prices and gloomy sentiment.

However, in good news for the trade, some consumers suggested that traditional pubs could survive by transforming to meet new demand.

Ian White, 44, an IT director for a hospital, a nonsmoker visiting London from Leeds with his wife and three sons, said he goes to the pub more these days.

"They're increasingly more friendly to families, the quality of the food has increased," White said. "The ones that are closing aren't seeing the threat and the opportunity. Their old clientele who just wanted to booze and smoke are less inclined to go, but people like me are more inclined to go."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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