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Less-expensive beer beckons Britons to cross the channel


LONDON -- As New Year's Eve approaches, thousands of Britons are heading for France -- and British brewers are crying in their beer about it.

Under rules of the single market that came into effect among the 12 European Union countries last Jan. 1, consumers can travel abroad and bring back virtually unlimited supplies of alcohol and tobacco.

Because of France's lower taxes, this has proved a bonanza to British drinkers -- and a disaster to British brewers.

Some industry experts estimate that more beer is now crossing the English Channel from Calais, France, the nearest port, than France exports worldwide.

Excise duty on beer in Britain is 45 cents a pint. In France, it is 6 cents. As a concession to hard-hit brewers, Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke left the beer duty unchanged in his budget in November.

Alcohol industry lobbyists estimated they have lost more than $1 billion in sales of beer, wine and liquor to French competitors so far this year. They say this is equivalent to the total annual sales of 4,000 pubs, or the annual production of two of the larger breweries.

They estimate the government has lost $525 million in excise duties and value-added tax, a figure well above the government's estimates. Paymaster General John Cope, the customs minister, estimates the loss in government revenue at about $372 million. His figure includes losses due to tobacco sales as well as alcohol.

Whatever the loss, the cross-channel ferry trade is booming. Some Britons rent transit vans, pickup trucks and taxis to go over to Calais and fill the vehicles with alcohol.

Bringing in alcohol for resale is illegal, but the Brewers' Society estimates that one-third of the beer imported this year was resold. The society says more than 256 million pints have been imported.

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