Sunday 28 December 2014

Arthur's Day binges aside, it is time to tell the sober truth

Inflating the status of alcoholism and calling three drinks a binge helps 
absolutely no one, says Jason Walsh

Jason Walsh

Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30

The remnants of Arthur' s Day in Temple Bar last year.
The remnants of Arthur' s Day in Temple Bar last year.

There's no need to mourn the passing of Arthur's Day, but Ireland's obsession with alcohol consumption is worse than the disease.

When I worked in Temple Bar, I trudged through urine-soaked streets each and every morning. It wasn't fun, and I still remember pushing open the gate and door of my office using my foot instead of my hands. Not being an aficionado of Berlin nightclubs, I had never seen a woman defecate in public until I rented my office in Dublin's notorious party district. I guess it's what you call a learning experience.

Even less extreme forms of behaviour - the infamous stag and hen parties for instance - point towards overconsumption of alcohol, but what lessons are we learning? Guinness announced last week that there will be no more Arthur's Day events; the company rather implausibly denying that it has bent to the will of its critics who said the marketing scheme encouraged binge drinking.

We can surmise from all of this that Ireland has an alcohol problem. Except we can't.

Working as a foreign correspondent for an American newspaper, I'm well aware of the fact that people in the US 'know' two things about the Irish: we drink until we fall over and we blow each other up. Reporting on the economic crisis (which no one abroad cares about anymore, despite what politicians will tell you) was a blessed relief; finally we're known for something else. What a shame, though, that such tiresome cliches, at least the first one, are as common at home as abroad.

It was already obvious last year that the jig was up. Arthur's Day went down, drowned in a tidal wave of moralising; one that bled into sanctimonious anti-corporate activism perfectly encapsulated by Christy Moore's execrable song, 'Arthur's Day': "Diageo, Diageo have mounted a crusade/Creating Arthur's Day they've suckered us into their charade/Start 'em off on alcopops tastes just like lemonade/Get 'em into the hit while they're young and none the wiser".

This, from a man who is no stranger to a pint. If anything in this life is more boring than a drunk, it's a reformed drunk. But I suppose it would be too much to ask for a little temperance from those who know better than the rest of us.

There is more at stake, though, than being hectored by the pious.

The reclassification of alcoholism as a disease has created a dangerous situation whereby we risk categorical collapse. That is, by inflating the status of alcoholism and reducing the criteria required to classify someone as a problem drinker, we lose the ability to talk rationally about the issue. More than just a cheap moralising, medicalisation of social issues pathologises human behaviour, letting people off the hook for making poor choices while also reducing their right to bodily integrity.

Certainly those who are truly dependent on alcohol are faced with a serious problem: unlike (most) opiates, alcohol withdrawal can kill you, but how many people will die because they drop from three glasses of wine to zero? Precisely none.

Yet, in the week we were confronted with the news that 1.3 million Irish people are "harmful drinkers". This information, gleaned from a Health Research Board survey, starts to look less worrisome when you discover that "binge drinking" means consuming more than three pints of beer in one evening out. Which is to say, almost anyone who ever has a drink is now a problem drinker. Such a classification is simply risible.

A more sober reading of statistics tells a rather different story. Despite the headlines at the time it was published, Ireland didn't rank in the top 10 - globally or in Europe - when it comes to downing drinks according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014. This is made all the more interesting when you consider that WHO itself is given to alarmism. Of course, WHO also made claims about Irish binge drinking.

Despite Ireland's average alcohol consumption level of 11.6 litres annually per person being above the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) average of nine litres, the OECD's published Health Statistics 2014 notes that consumption is declining.

But then, we already knew that. A 2012 study performed by Dublin City University - albeit funded by Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland - estimated that, in 2011, average alcohol consumption had been falling for a decade, down 17pc on its 2001 peak.

The results are confirmed by Revenue and Central 
Statistics Office figures indicating a drop from 14.44 litres of alcohol per person per 
year in 2001 to 11.68 litres in 2012.

Don't get me wrong. Arthur's Day was an unedifying spectacle, and one that was well past its sell-by date. What was a pleasant gag -Our Thursday - to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the opening of the St James's Gate brewery was already tired by the time a second one came around in 2010.

So, good riddance to it, but if Irish people want to discuss alcohol consumption, they should do so without reflexively labelling a third of the population problem drinkers, and at least consider that demands for minimum pricing and higher taxes - strangely emanating from the likes of left-wing (and religious) think-tank Social Justice Ireland - amount to a tax on the poor. People who buy bottles of Burgundy are unlikely to notice price creep in quite the same way as drinkers of cheap lager might.

Incidentally, according to the EU statistics agency Eurostat, Irish alcohol and tobacco prices (taken together, in their statistics) are 178pc of the EU average, the highest in Europe.

Fianna Fail Senator Marc MacSharry, meanwhile, has urged for the introduction of a new tax on alcohol to pay for suicide prevention. Perhaps he should argue instead for an economy that hasn't seen so many people thrown on the unemployment scrapheap and crucified 
with taxes.

As for the late, unlamented Arthur's Day, if you really need a meaningless, phoney-baloney holiday in order to get smashed, there's always St Patrick's Day.

In the meantime, by all means put the drink down - but it's your responsibility and yours alone.

Sunday Independent

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