independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Prof Frank Murray: Taking the right steps to curb 'drink culture'

'Alcohol doesn't drown the sorrows; it only teaches sorrows to swim'

When many healthcare professionals and others in Ireland spoke out against Arthur's Day, the message echoed around the globe.

This was a consequence of the fact that Guinness is a global brand, but also because Ireland is recognised internationally as a country where alcohol has played a leading role in both social events and disease. Our Minister for Health reminded us of that again today, when he referred to the 'social lubricant' of alcohol.

However, despite the almost constant talk of our historical 'drink culture', Ireland has only relatively recently moved to the top of the table in terms of alcohol consumption and binge drinking.

Since the 1980s, while alcohol consumption was falling in many Western European countries, our alcohol consumption increased year upon year, until reaching a peak in 2001. Since then, consumption overall has decreased, but it remains well above both recommended low risk limits and the OECD average.

The high costs of alcohol to society have been well documented.

We have seen first-hand the health impact.

The number of people dying from alcohol-related liver disease doubled between 1994 and 2008. The economic impact is evident in absenteeism and the healthcare and criminal costs borne by the state.

Binge drinking and pre-drinking have become the norm among our teenagers.

The announcement yesterday marks a radical step for this government in addressing the issue of alcohol misuse. Radical, but welcomed; not only by my colleagues and I, who advocate for health, but also by industry. Kathryn Darcy, Director of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland, welcomed the proposals stating: "You do not want to live in a society where alcohol is misused". Misuse is the key word. Alcohol is a drug. Many tend to forget this, particularly when it appears on supermarket shelves alongside ordinary household commodities.

Slick marketing campaigns attempt to persuade us that a glass of wine or a beer will help us to relax and reduce stress, but the reality is that alcohol is a depressant and can add to levels of stress and distress.

To borrow a phrase, alcohol doesn't drown the sorrows; it only teaches those sorrows to swim. It's time we acknowledge the reality of this, and protect our children from the messages that result in them drinking at an earlier age, and drinking more when they begin drinking.

We argue that minimum pricing is the single most-effective measure for reducing alcohol consumption.

As doctors, my colleagues and I see the terrible harm caused by strong, cheap alcohol. We welcome Minimum Unit Pricing as an evidence-based measure that will target the problems caused by strong, cheap alcohol, which is mainly consumed by problem drinkers and younger drinkers.

Alcohol use in younger people is of particular concern. Excessive consumption of alcohol in adolescence can have detrimental effects, as the brain continues developing from childhood through to early adulthood. We now see deaths from liver disease at much younger ages than in the past, and alcohol is a recognised factor in many young suicides.

THE effects of Minimum Unit Pricing on alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harms are significant. In Saskatchewan province in Canada, a 10pc increase in minimum price was associated with an 8.4pc reduction in overall alcohol consumption, and a 22pc reduction in consumption of higher strength alcohols.

Likewise in British Columbia, a 10pc increase in minimum price saw consumption decrease by 3.4pc overall and there was a 32pc reduction in wholly alcohol-attributable deaths. The measures to restrict advertising of alcoholic products will help, as will the elimination of alcohol sponsorship in sports, which I hope will be the outcome of the working group to examine the issue.

The proposed legislation requiring health warnings and advice on alcohol products will also help people to make decisions on their alcohol consumption.

This Government is to be congratulated and encouraged in taking these radical steps to reduce alcohol-health harm. Their initiatives will have short, medium and long-term benefits for us, and particularly those who suffer as a result of alcohol misuse.

Prof Frank Murray is Chair of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland's Policy Group on Alcohol. He is Consultant Gastroenterologist and Specialist in Liver Disease at Beaumont Hospital.

Irish Independent

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