A Continental café culture. Sipping sophisticated drinks at all hours in the manner of Montmartre. That, the government hoped, would be life under the new alcohol regime introduced last year.

Twenty-four hour licences arrived. Councils were given the ­power to regulate sales in tune with their patches. Responsible retailers as well as drinkers were to be toasted. The bingers and underage quaffers would be brought into line.

One year on, do we just have a nasty hangover? Last month, a hard-hitting anti-binge drinking campaign was launched by the Department of Health.

Citing figures that made the UK sound like ­the drunken pariah of Europe, public health minister Caroline Flint said binge drinking needed tackling. Fast.

The new campaign, backed by statistics, gives the impression that in 12 months Britain has in fact moved even further from that Continental culture. What's going on?

Flint denies the government's approach to alcohol is absurdly contradictory. "I don't think these are mixed messages. The new laws, if anything, are about encouraging responsible drinking. Binge drinking has been around for a while and we need to do something about it. But we don't want to tell people not to drink."

The new legislation is, arguably, the last thing to blame for problems with our drinking culture. Very few retailers actually applied for 24-hour licences. That's because they fly in the face of business sense.

"They aren't commercially viable," says Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. "They may use them for a particular event, or over the Christmas period. But it's not viable to staff a store for 24 hours."

However, 24-hour drinking was just one aspect of the new ­regime. And many in the trade say there's still much to be done.

Some local authorities are, after all, still working through all their licence applications. "They are down to the last few but it means some businesses are operating without a ­licence," says Beadles. The procedures meant lengthy delays were inevitable. "There were probably elements in the applications that were unnecessary, but the complexity will no doubt get ironed out."

James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, says it dealt with a barrage of queries in the run up to the 24 August deadline.

"We had a lot of contact around this time with many needing help with the forms," he says. "But after this date it went noticeably quiet."

The ACS assumed applications had either gone through OK or that retailers had yet to make up their minds whether to apply. But that's not the end of the affair.

Once an application is through intricate processing, retailers have to adjust to an entirely new system. "There are significant extra costs to businesses and they have had to adjust to take those in," says Beadles. "After decades of the previous system, they are relearning it all."

One of the key differences between the new and the old systems is the policing of the licences.

"This has wide-ranging implications," says Beadles. "Retailers are having to learn how individual local authorities will react and how they will apply the law." Primarily, local authorities have focused on underage drinking and the penalty enforcement. Under the Act, test purchase operations are more frequent. A three strikes and you're out policy has come in.

Powers of enforcement are definitely starting to come into play, believes Lowman. "Local authorities are reviewing licences particularly when it comes to monitoring underage sales."

The Act allows licences to be reviewed more easily - and revoked much more easily. Although retailers accept there must be strict rules, they think there is still work to be done to ensure consistency across the country. "Tougher penalties are definitely there," says Beadles. "And retailers do have a serious commitment to responsible retailing. But it's not easy and mistakes do happen. They would like to see more partnership between local authorities and police. They don't want the retailer to always be seen as the bad guy."

Lowman says retailers have concerns about the methods used for test purchasing. The introduction of alcohol disorder zones, which differ in nature across the country, are also a worry to traders.

"For responsible retailers the law about not selling to those who are under age is very clear. But they are concerned about issues such as alcohol disorder zones, which threaten significant costs," he says.

Issues such as how many trained people a business needs can also be interpreted differently between local authorities.

But so much for the bureaucratic technicalities. Retailers also feel that alcohol abuse is a social problem, rather than an industry one. The government would do well to clarify its position to the trade on the social aspect, says Beadles.

After all, he himself agrees that the Brits have a problem with how they consume alcohol. "It stems from people being pushed into drinking in a short space of time," he says. "If you want to change the culture it has to be done in small steps and the key is education. It is difficult to change simply through regulation."

Introducing regulations to bring the UK in line with other parts of Europe is not going to eradicate the ongoing reports of antisocial drink-related behaviour that litter the UK's newspapers.

Tough penalties to combat issues such as underage sales are, however, welcomed by the industry - providing they are done consistently until the juvenile abstinence message really gets through.

It's not quite a warm café-culture style feeling, but there is satisfaction where licensees and the police are now working ­together, rather than aggressive enforcement being the only route.

And in a year's time, with collaboration established and the detail thrashed out, we may not be so far from the Continental dream after all.n

The government is continuing to look at ways to change drinking culture, and the introduction of the 2003 Licensing Act last year forms part of this long-term plan.

The Home Office? and DH launched the £4m Know Your Limits advertising campaign last month to encourage 18 to 24-year-olds to drink responsibly.

At the campaign launch, Home Office minister Vernon Coaker highlighted the latest statistics:

70% of peak-time A&E admissions are alcohol-related

A third of men and a quarter of women aged 16 to 24 drink double the recommended ?limit

Around half of all violent crime is alcohol-related

Nearly one in three city centre arrests involve alcohol

80% of pedestrian deaths on Friday and Saturday nights are drink-related

Alcohol misuse costs the NHS about £1.6bn per year

The estimated NHS spend on specialist alcohol treatment is £217m