Sunday 23 October 2016

No half measures in tackling the Christmas binge culture

Lorraine Courtney

Published 09/12/2015 | 02:30

'You end up with a country of bloated drunkards whose habits are almost impossible to legislate away'
'You end up with a country of bloated drunkards whose habits are almost impossible to legislate away'

Already the wall-to-wall advice on how to cure the Christmas hangover is becoming grating. Articles and tips ranged from blending asparagus smoothies to swallowing the ibuprofen. None of the tips included self-restraint. Now, having one too many at Christmas is nothing new, but what's shocking is how normal and acceptable it now is.

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As soon as the round of parties starts, instead of a few drinks to get merry, most of us seem hell-bent on oblivion. Why do otherwise sane individuals suddenly feel compelled to make such fools of themselves at office parties? Instead of alcohol being a pleasant facilitator, getting steaming drunk is the only objective.

The 12 Pubs of Christmas is now a firmly established tradition, an ill-advised bar crawl where participants down a drink in a dozen different bars and all over the course of a single evening.

A male participant in this binge-fest will surpass his weekly recommended alcohol intake by one and a half times and a female will drink double her weekly limit in one go. Yes. We've reached peak booze and all in the name of a dubious new "tradition".

We drank 1.3 million litres of spirits during the first quarter of this year, a 16.5pc increase over the same period last year. Wine consumption is also up by 6pc. Meanwhile, beer consumption is up only marginally by 2.2pc. That's an overall 5.2pc increase in consumption during the first three months of 2015. Plus we are already among the top five heaviest drinking nations in Europe.

The World Health Organisation's global status report on alcohol and health 2014 found that 39pc of all Irish people aged 15-years-old and over had engaged in binge drinking, or "heavy episodic drinking", in the past 30 days. This puts Ireland just behind Austria (it's at 40.5pc) at the top of the 194 countries studied and well ahead of our neighbours in Britain who are at just 28pc. December is when we justify this behaviour in the name of goodwill.

The sobering truth is that rates of alcoholic liver disease per 100,000 adults increased by 190pc from 28.3 in 1995 to 82.2 in 2007, according to figures published in the journal 'Alcohol and Alcoholism'. The figures also reveal "considerable increases" of alcohol liver disease among younger age groups. Among 15 to 34-year-olds, the rate of ALD discharges increased by 247pc, while for the 35 to 49 age group, the rate increased by 22pc.

Still there's some positive things happening. Alcohol Action Ireland is the national charity for alcohol-related issues, working for advocacy and policy change, working to reduce levels of alcohol-related harm here. And because of pressure groups like this, Health Minister Leo Varadkar is soldiering on with his Public Health (Alcohol) Bill in an attempt to de-glamourise drinking. The legislation will be brought to Cabinet shortly. It includes a 9pm watershed for television and radio advertising of alcohol, the introduction of minimum pricing, which will mean a bottle of wine cannot be sold for less than around €8 and a can of beer for under €2, as well as warning labels on alcohol bottles and cans. There will also be health warnings on the dangers of drinking while pregnant and the amount of pure alcohol in grams and the calorie count.

But these measures ignore the underlying factors. Alcohol is dirt cheap elsewhere in Europe, but in countries such as France and Italy - where alcohol is consumed regularly but in a leisurely, aperitif fashion, while looking out on to a piazza - there is no binge-drinking epidemic. Lots of different things underline our unhealthy drinking habits. It's got a lot to do with our nationwide lack of confidence and emotional reserve. This is a cliché, but one that's undeniable in the face of all those boozed-up first kisses and late-night street brawls between drunken people rattling with repressed anger, like pressure cookers. Combine that with the lure of the taboo created by a society that tells parents not to let their children see them drink, and you end up with a country of bloated drunkards whose habits are almost impossible to legislate away.

So 'tis now the season when our pubs are jammed full of office workers wearing garish woolly jumpers, downing pints by the bucket-load, all in the name of seasonal good cheer.

There will be vomit on our shoes and we'll roll around in the gutters up and down the country. Still, we all know that Christmas cheer is bad for our liver and dignity. We know that we can't keep using Christmas as an excuse to justify irresponsible behaviour.

Irish Independent

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