Life Health Features

Thursday 2 October 2014

Doctor's orders: We still haven't beaten demon drink

Alcohol causes huge problems in Irish society, yet we continue to remain in denial about its effects. Does anybody care?

Dr Ciara Kelly

Published 10/08/2014 | 00:00

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SUCK IT UP LIKE YOU’RE IRISH: We baulk at the ‘drunken Irish’ stereotype. We complain when British politicians refer to it, and we went nuts when we were lampooned on ‘The Simpsons’

Isn't it time we had a grown up debate about alcohol? Recently, yet another study has shown that we Irish drink far in excess of other countries. It says that 1.3m of us have a harmful drinking pattern and that 75pc of our episodes of drinking constitute a binge. In other words, we don't drink to add pleasure to a meal, or oil the social machinery. Ireland drinks to get drunk.

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By definition, a binge means more than six units of alcohol - that's three pints. It's a factual medical term, which relates to the fact that more than six units causes adverse physical effects. But when you say three pints is a binge to an Irish person, you almost always get the same response, "That's not a binge!" Generally followed by description of climbing a crane, langers, in your underwear. In Irish terms, a binge is being legless. Twenty or 30 units can constitute a binge around here. We consider six units drinking in moderation. It's not.

This latest study talks about our 'collective denial' of the issue, and, indeed, that's the case. 1.3m harmful drinkers. Eight pc of the total health spend going on alcohol-related problems. A&Es ugly, violent places at night. Our major cities family unfriendly on our national saints' day. Public disorder endemic on our streets after dark. And yet we baulk at the 'drunken Irish' stereotype. We go nuts when British politicians refer to it, and when we're lampooned on The Simpsons. Irish doctors in the US campaigned to have a medical text book there changed - it suggested there should be a high suspicion of alcoholism in patients of Irish extraction. Collective denial.

We talk out of both sides of our mouths when it comes to alcohol in this country. On the one hand we say, "It's a disgrace!" when we see people puking, urinating, fighting and copulating in the streets. And on the other hand, we continue to describe as 'legend', the mad nights out we've had when we were pissed.

We wonder why our young people drink like fish, while the older generations do the exact same. Only work, babies and age reign us in. And in women over 45 - whose children are no longer babies - we see drinking patterns increase once more.

So I think it's time for debate. Is it actually worth it? Is all the havoc wreaked, worth the night out, that you cut loose and lived to tell the tale - of stealing a Garda's hat and throwing up in your handbag? Because that's the issue. The madder the tale, the funnier the story - the more we frame it as having a good time. The more we perpetuate the drink culture.

The fact is that alcohol is implicated in three quarters of suicides. And it is the single biggest risk factor for death in young men under 30. It is also a factor in countless rapes, assaults and accidents. It sucks up a huge amount of our health budget, while sober patients lying in wait on trolleys continue to be ignored.

So let's have the debate and please let's keep the drinks industry out of it. Let's decide if it's worth it. Because while we still talk about it like it's cool - despite other nations thinking we're basically drunks - it's never going to change.

Railing against the drunken Irish stereotype while lauding the nights we were most pissed, says we want to continue this pattern of drinking but just don't want anyone to notice.

If we really do want to change our relationship with drink, drunkenness has to stop being cool and become, in fact - like in many countries - uncool and unacceptable. Drunk tanks might be a good place to start. It'd clean up our streets, and ending up in one might be harder to eulogise.

Other nations can see we're drunks. Mirror anybody?

Twitter: @ciarakellydoc

Sunday Independent

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