Only time will tell if McDowell's cafe culture reduces binge drinking
ONLY time will tell if Michael McDowell's plan for continental style cafe bars will usher in the kind of cultural change that will alter drinking habits.
Throughout mainland Europe moderate drinking goes hand-in-hand with eating and hence, most countries avoid the kind of wild, binge drinking that has become commonplace in Ireland in recent years.
The Justice Minister hopes his plans will produce a two-fold change in our drinking culture. Firstly, Mr McDowell hopes the new bars will provide a real challenge to existing pubs, especially superpubs.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he hopes the cafe bars will transform drinking patterns by reinforcing a link with food.
Under his proposals the new cafe bars will be licensed but, significantly, the licences will be cheaper than for pubs. All qualifying premises will be required to provide hot food and non-alcoholic as well as alcoholic drink.
If nothing else the emergence of cafe bars will certainly provide an alternative and may prevent some people, especially younger drinkers, from embarking upon binge sessions.
There is now compelling evidence from gardai, teachers and the medical profession - not least those in the frontline of the country's A&E departments - about the toll binge drinking takes on young people.
Those involved frequently find themselves as perpetrators or victims of criminal activities ranging from public order offences, serious traffic offences, serious offences against the person and sexual assaults.
For citizens living in cities, towns and even small rural villages, the growth of binge drinking has brought with it an air of menace to the streets. Even where no crimes are committed many people faced with a group of drunken youths are left fearful that trouble could erupt at any moment.
Mr McDowell's plan envisages that the cafe bars will operate to the same opening hours as pubs. However, they will be limited in size to a maximum of 130 square metres.
Launching the plan yesterday, Mr McDowell said he hoped the new outlets would mark a turning point and that Ireland would move more into line with the drinking habits of countries like Spain, Italy, France and Greece where entertainment and socialising is centred on enjoying drink with food.
The advent of cafe bars is unlikely to add to binge drinking since it seems more likely that those using them will opt for food. Over time that might help initiate a change in our existing pub and binge culture.