Sunday 24 September 2017

Political drinker diktat is too big a gulp

State regulation of our drinking will do nothing to address alcohol abuse or anti-social behaviour, says Liam CollinsA MATTER OF CHOICE: Liam Collins enjoys one of life's few pleasures in the pub -- a trade which has taken the brunt of social change in Ireland. Photo: David Conachy

OK, like a lot of people, I have on occasion drunk too much. I could add the words 'far too much' and I wouldn't be exaggerating.

But I can also say that I have often walked out of receptions in fancy hotels where free drink was flowing with abandon, and across the road to a bar and paid €5 a pint because I found the company there and the setting more conducive to the enjoyment of a drink.

That's how I justify the claim that I drink to enjoy myself, not to get wasted.

Like most consumers I am conscious of the price of drink and like to get a good deal, but the price of a pint doesn't influence my choices. That is one reason I resent Roisin Shorthall and those who want to "engineer" changes in Ireland's drinking culture.

We should always be wary of politicians who want to dictate the sort of lifestyle we should lead. Ogden Nash put it rather well: "People who have what they want are fond of telling people who haven't what they want that they don't really want it."

What I also found laughable is that these people are holding up the 'Scandinavian' model as something we should follow. As someone who has travelled extensively in one of those 'model' countries, I can say with certainty that the drinking culture when it was strictly state regulated was abominable. It is changing now, but when I first encountered it people in bars drank in morose silence until they fell on the floor. At least most Irish people enjoy their drink. They celebrate it, they sing and play music with it, they talk and bullshit with it. It helps get us through the wet summer and dark damp winters.

So why do well-heeled ministers always want to inter-fere when a section of the community -- in this case, the drinking classes -- are enjoying that rare thing, a bonanza of cheap booze?

I am not talking here about unfortunate alcoholics; the cost of drink doesn't really matter to them. I am not talking about the skangers and gougers who want to get wasted and smash people and property. They are a minority and it's about time the authorities, particularly the gardai, upped their game and got on top of all types of antisocial behaviour.

It should not be some sort of privilege, but a right, to be able to walk down O'Connell Street or the main street of any town in Ireland without being molested by eejits on drink or drugs. This Government should be concentrating on enforcing that right.

What would minimum pricing of alcohol achieve?

A study carried out by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in Britain after the Scottish parliament proposed a minimum price of 45p a unit on alcohol in 2010, found that the biggest impact of this measure would be to 'transfer' £700m from consumers to the supermarket chains, and on a smaller scale to drink manufacturers.

"A minimum price for alcohol would enrich the suppliers, which I presume is not our intention," said economist and senator Sean Barrett in a debate last year. "It certainly is not mine. Low prices are what we normally seek, and I wish bodies in the energy sector were as good at lowering prices."

He quoted OECD figures which said that consumption of alcohol in Ireland had fallen 27 per cent between 2001 and 2009.

"Are we blaming the commodity or do we have a problem in health and social services which we need to correct?" asked Senator Barrett. "We need up-to-date data to discover what exactly has been happening since the start of the recession. Young people's attitudes have changed; those of drivers have certainly changed. They have moved away from pubs. Is it damaging if people bring a drink home rather than having it in the pub? I would prefer them to have it at home because they pose less of a danger to society there. Let us not condemn everything that has happened in recent times."

And are there not other aspects of Irish life that the Junior Minister in the Department of Health could profitably look at? Obesity, the massive dependency on prescribed drugs fostered by the Medical Card system, the lack of exercise for numerous families who have almost forgotten how to walk.

Of course there are issues about the Irish drinking culture, which happily embraces almost every aspect of life from First Holy Communions to football matches to those rare moments when the sun comes out and we have to celebrate with a pint or two.

There are big changes happening in the way Irish people drink, and there probably is a need for a comprehensive study to tell us more about it.

The pub trade has taken the brunt of social change -- a certain amount of greed by publicans, the smoking ban, drink-driving laws and cheap booze in the supermarkets have all conspired to put this industry on its knees in a remarkably short time.

Young people, and girls in particular, seem to have no problem downing copious quantities of vodka before going out to a club -- pricing doesn't seem to be an issue.

In the last few years beer consumption has fallen by over 13 per cent, and sales of wine have risen by an equal amount. Drinkers are deserting a native industry for a foreign one. Something that should worry Roisin Shortall is that many Irish drinkers don't seem to realise that there is a difference between 4-5 per cent alcohol in beer and 12-14 per cent alcohol in wine -- maybe spending some money telling them, particularly women, about this difference might make sense.

According to some reports, the 'minimum pricing' move is aimed at reducing alcohol consumption in Ireland from the current level of between 11 and 12 litres per person a year to the OECD average of 9.3 litres.

But why should we be 'average.' Why not just be Irish?

There is certainly a need to look at the drinks industry, but it's time politicians stopped trying to 'engineer' people's social habits and did what they're supposed to do: properly enforce exising laws, and let law-abiding citizens get on with enjoying one of life's few pleasures in a peaceful way, as most of us do.

Sunday Independent

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