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The futility of running a war against vices

Reforms to curb the use of substances such as alcohol and tobacco in Ireland have all tended to follow a similar trend. The government of the day initially talks of a malaise afflicting the population, then passes a reform aimed at fixing it, only for statistics to later affirm the pathetic deficiency of its actions.

Last week, the Government announced that it would seek to further check the consumption of alcohol by the Irish public. The move, which includes banning the sale of alcohol from supermarkets, is just the latest in a long-running series of strenuous attempts by successive governments to remedy the Irish obsession with all things bad. Attempts that seem to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of public tendency.

The argument of this Government, and the one that preceded it, seems to be predicated on the wholly fatuous assumption that the general public are saddled by such crippling naivety that they can barely comprehend the severe ramifications of drinking to excess. The same assumption seems to hold true when it comes to discussion of all other forms of vice: drugs, tobacco, sex, etc.

Allied to such an unfit appraisal is the other fallacy that a collective proclivity for a substance can almost be solely determined by government attempts to control its supply and legal status. A stratagem that was not only proved false more than 80 years ago, following the collapse of prohibition in the United States, but one that is being repudiated every day in that country's doomed 'War on Drugs'.

The United States has some of, if not the most, punitive laws in the Western world when it comes to the sale and use of a drug like cannabis. Despite this, few countries can attest to such a penchant for the 'reefer', with over 42 per cent of the population professing to have used the drug, according to a 2008 study. This is more than double the rate of the Netherlands (19 per cent), a country synonymous with a liberal approach to drug use.

The same logic can be applied to the case of alcohol and tobacco in Ireland. Despite a decade of increased excise duties, increased VAT, restrictions on opening hours and other punitive measures aimed at decreasing consumption, the Irish people have remained steadfast in their desire to drink and smoke.

Such a supposition is not just born out of the anecdotal but in the empirical, too. In spite of price increases and supply restrictions, the Irish people still drink in excess of 13 litres of alcohol per person per year, one of the highest rates in the world. The same is true of tobacco, despite the average price of a cigarette increasing by a massive 50 per cent between 2004 and 2010, the level of consumption in those six years remained almost unchanged.

If history teaches us anything, it's that these current proposals to limit our want for the drink are bound to fail. Time and again, the State has attempted to construct a figurative wall between the people and their vices, their poisons of choice. On every occasion, the people have not so much surmounted such an obstacle as smashed straight through it.

Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate for the US presidential nomination, once remarked that if people want to avail of alcohol, drugs and other harmful substances, they will do so, regardless of what the State thinks or does. Our leaders would do well to listen to the man from Texas.

Sunday Independent