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First Low-Alcohol Pub Closes, But Others Rise

November 30, 1988

LONDON (AP) _ Regulars sipped their last fruit juice Wednesday at the Milestone pub, but fans of the pioneering bar for non-drinkers said its example lives on.

The Milestone opened at Exeter in southwestern England in 1985 as Britain’s first low-alcohol bar, serving soft drinks and the occasional low-alcohol beer. Since then, 31 similar bars and clubs have sprung up around the country, most of them for teen-agers.

Operators of the Milestone blamed its closure on lack of public funds, on which it was run almost exclusively for the first 2 1/2 years. Officials said it had made a path others are following.

″I don’t think (the closing) is a bad sign,″ said Juliet Gosling, spokeswoman for the government’s alcohol-education body, Alcohol Concern.

″I think it’s very sad, but new clubs and bars are opening every week. There’s unprecedented interest in setting up this sort of venture,″ she said in a telephone interview, adding that other such bars ″have learned from the Milestone.″

″We expressly set out not to make (the Milestone) a club for ex- drinkers,″ said Mike Tristram, director of the Exeter and District Council on Alcohol, the charity that ran the Milestone.

He said only one-third of the pub’s customers were people with drinking problems, and two-thirds were ″the general public who prefer a non-alcoholic environment.″

Low-alcohol beer carries an alcohol content of 0.9 percent, whereas alcohol in regular beer can range up to 10 percent. A British bitter, drawn from the tap, typically contains just under 4 percent alcohol.

Low alcohol isn’t the only attraction of the new pubs, however. Assistant Manager Graham Hampson said ″a lot of women come in because they fear being molested in other places.″

The Milestone, which cost more than $28,000 annually to operate, was heavily supported at its beginning by an annual $22,000 grant from the national Mental Health Foundation.

But when the foundation grant ran out this year, the pub could not break even. Ms. Gosling said its location, in the basement in a community services building away from the city center, also made profits elusive.

The pub will now be made into a club for physically and mentally handicapped people.

″Some nights the place has been packed, and we’ve only taken 20 pounds″ or $40,″ said Manager Norrie McKechnie, a 41-year-old reformed alcoholic. ″People don’t come in and drink five pints of orange juice.″

Tristram said, ″it’s very unfortunate that an initiative like this wouldn’t attract more public support for funding.″

But he and McKechnie agreed that the Milestone had achieved some of its objectives.

″Our closure will make everyone think alcohol-free pubs don’t work, but the failure is only in commercial terms. It’s helped so many people,″ McKechnie said.

Ms. Gosling attributed the popularity of such bars to growing concern about alcohol-related problems like drunken driving, underage drinking and work accidents.

Many of the bars were opened with teen-agers or families in mind, she said.

A spokesman for the Brewers Society, which represents most of the country’s 117 brewers, said sales of low-alcohol products have doubled every year since 1985. The society recently launched a campaign to get drivers to drink low- alcohol products in regular pubs.

Of the Milestone, the spokesman said on condition of anonymity: ″I can’t quite see the point of it. I’m surprised it lasted that long. If you want to go to a place without alcohol, go to a cafe.″

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