Wednesday 13 December 2017

Young people in Ireland are drinking less alcohol than their parents and this could be the reason why

New figures show alcohol consumption is declining, as young people swig coffee and take up running.

Alcohol consumption in Ireland is dropping
Alcohol consumption in Ireland is dropping
USI President Annie Hoey. Photo: John Kelly
More productive: Comedian Paddy Cullivan has given up booze for a second time. Photo: Barbara McCarthy
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Ireland is being hit by a wave of sobriety. The latest figures from the World Health Organisation show that our reputation for heavy drinking is now little more than a quaint historical stereotype.

The once dedicated Irish boozer is kicking the habit, and replacing it with trips to the gym, bouts of mindfulness and sessions in the local coffee shop.

We were given a glimpse of the new social order when Gerry Adams revealed this week what he has in common with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: they both went to the same Pilates class. So, it's fewer pints, more Pilates for the modern Irish male.

The World Health Organisation estimates that the average Irish person over the age of 15 knocked back the equivalent of 10.9 litres of pure alcohol in 2016.

USI President Annie Hoey. Photo: John Kelly
USI President Annie Hoey. Photo: John Kelly

That compares to 14.41 litres in 2005, when the Celtic Tiger party was in full swing.

When it comes to getting stocious, we are now lagging far behind the British, the French and the Germans.

Since our tipsy boom-time heyday, we have dropped from eighth to 18th in the European drinking charts.

Experts put the decline down to a number of different factors.

Dublin City University economist Anthony Foley, who tracks the trends for the drinks industry, says one of the major causes of the long-term decline is the ageing population.

In the boom years, a higher proportion of people were in their twenties, and this group tends to drink more. This age group has matured and is now prone to staying off the gargle.

More productive: Comedian Paddy Cullivan has given up booze for a second time. Photo: Barbara McCarthy
More productive: Comedian Paddy Cullivan has given up booze for a second time. Photo: Barbara McCarthy

Donall O'Keeffe, chief executive of the Licensed Vintners Association, says: "When you have a young population and a booming economy, more people tend to go out to socialise and drink.

"As the demographic matured, we went through the biggest recession in the history of the State. One of the first things they did was cut down on socialising, and that affected alcohol sales."

O'Keeffe says the bar trade took a "ferocious wallop" in the recession, with a 30pc drop in sales by volume. Over the past 18 months, there has been a slow and partial recovery.

Whereas drinking used to be the cornerstone of Irish social life and even seeped into the workday routine, that is no longer necessarily the case. Even notoriously bibulous occupations such as journalism and the law have given up drinking at lunchtime, and in many professions, the scent of a postprandial stiffener on the breath is now frowned upon.

Non-alcoholic alternatives

Paddy Cullivan, the comedian and Late Late Show musician, is one of the thousands of former drinkers who have decided that they get on better without alcohol.

"I think it would be good if the whole country gave up drink for a year," he says. "When you stop drinking, you realise that there is a normal world out there that doesn't involve everyone becoming blotto."

Cullivan has previously given up drink for one and a half years from 2014, before giving up again four months ago.

"I went for a blood test and it showed I had high cholesterol. So, I decided to give up again."

Cullivan puts the decline in drinking down to three phenomena - the health and exercise craze, the austerity that came with the recession and the availability of good alternatives.

"I still enjoying going to the pub, but you don't have to drink alcohol when you are there. There's good non-alcoholic beer now, and even non-alcoholic Prosecco."

The entertainer says he loves the fact that he can drive home and enjoy the following day without a hangover.

"I have a very busy life with all my gigs and I have found that I double my productivity without drink, and I have lost a stone in weight."

Although the long-term decline in alcohol consumption has levelled off, lifestyles seem to have changed permanently.

"Drink-driving legislation has been more stringently observed in the last number of years and this has affected drinking habits in country areas," says pub historian Kevin Martin.

He says many pubs in Ireland have reached a tipping point. An older generation of pub drinkers is dying off and they are not being replaced.

"Others stop coming because there are fewer people around and they feel that it is no fun any more," says Martin.

The historian says the pub is no longer seen as the "third space" in Irish society - a place away from home and work where we go to meet our social needs.

"Now people have other options - it could be coffee shops or sports clubs," says Martin.

The dedicated drinker who used to prop up the bar and regale fellow tipplers with opinions on affairs of state is fast disappearing.

According to Martin, he may have joined a men's health group, a running group or he's off in the hills, cycling along in lycra.

There is a much greater variety of drink in pubs now, but that does not mean that young drinkers knock back more. The boom in craft beer and exotic gin brands is part of the millennial mindset, where more value is placed on quality or novelty than quantity.

Martin says many of the younger generation no longer see going to the pub as part of their social life.

Despite much hand wringing about teenagers getting sozzled, they are also drinking much less than they were two decades ago.

The ESPAD survey of 15 to 16-year-old shows that alcohol use has plummeted by 48pc in Ireland since 1995, while binge drinking has dropped by 40pc.

This surge in teenage sobriety seems to have coincided with the arrival of the social media age, and has also been accompanied by a decline in smoking.

Eunan McKinney of Alcohol Action Ireland says: "The downward trajectory in children drinking is welcome. However, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption for children."

Rise in home drinking

McKinney says one of the big trends of the last decade is the rise in home drinking, with up to 60pc of alcohol sold in supermarkets or off-licences.

Students may seem like the natural target market for alcohol companies, but they are no longer being given free rein to promote their products on campus. Universities and third level colleges now impose restrictions on alcohol promotions and sponsorship.

Annie Hoey, President of the Union in Students of Ireland, says: "There have been lots of campaigns to raise awareness about alcohol.

"A lot of the messages are getting through to young people about the effects of overconsumption on mental health. There are now alternative ways of socialising. You only have to walk down any street in Ireland to see the rise in coffee shops.

"There has also been a shift among Irish students towards healthy body awareness. Everybody seems to be doing 5k or 10k runs," Hoey adds.

Rural pubs may be struggling but the decline of the demon drink does not mean that bars in urban areas are necessarily doomed.

DCU economist Anthony Foley says: "The pubs that are doing well are no longer just alcohol shops. They are also nightclubs, restaurants and entertainment centres. Drink is a less important part of their business."

@KimBielenberg

Paddy Cullivan is performing his show 10 Dark Secrets of the Irish Revolution at the Dalkey Book Festival tomorrow night

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