Sunday 8 December 2019

Pass the booze bill and sober up doctors and the Dail

The Public Health Alcohol Bill might sober up doctors and the Dail, but Maurice Gueret has doubts that it will ever float

A campaign to get doctors to contact their TDs about the perils of drink is under way
A campaign to get doctors to contact their TDs about the perils of drink is under way
Dr Maurice Gueret

After a few Christmas booze-ups for the political parties, the Dail will return next week to decide what to do with the Public Health Bill on Alcohol. With Mr Trump planning to move millions of jobs back to America and our closest neighbours in Britain about to pull their drawbridge up, Ireland's long and turbulent relationship with alcohol might struggle to get top-table consideration.

A round-robin email campaign to get doctors to contact their TDs about the perils of drink is under way. I think they know full well. Some of the wildest and worst alcoholics in Irish history plied their trade on Kildare Street. It's well known that booze in Oireachtas bars is sold well under the price of nearby hotels and hostelries. And to keep resident punters imbibing, your taxes have also been paying for a separate subscription to a specialist racing channel on the television. Getting this well-lobbied lot to enact stricter liquor laws is something of a high-stakes gamble.

* So what's the big deal about this new alcohol bill? Well, I'll summarise it for you. The promoters want dearer drink; less places selling drink; drink to be segregated and hidden away in shops; doctors to screen their patients for drink; and labels on drink, listing dangers like liver disease, cancer and hidden calories. There will be very strict limits on alcohol promotions and sponsorship. Those who flout the law can face criminal sanctions, and a team of HSE personnel will be on hand to go around inspecting compliance. There are very welcome measures within this bill, particularly those that protect children, but I also detect something of the temperance movement about it. Some public comments from supporters of the bill would have you believe they would like all the State's alcohol under lock and key. The Royal College of Physicians has been at the heart of campaigning for the bill in recent months. So many warnings have emanated about the dire consequences of alcohol, it's amazing that they still serve and promote the stuff at so many of the events within the College walls. It's a bit peculiar to see one heavy-drinking profession lecture another heavy-drinking profession about what anti-drink laws they need to bring in. A late professor of mine, Petr Skrabanek, liked to draw attention to the fact the death rate from cirrhosis of the liver among British doctors used to be over three times that of their patients. He reminded us of the view of George Bernard Shaw that doctors seem to die of the very same diseases they profess to prevent or cure. I have a feeling this bill, good in parts as it is, might not pass. Another sobering citizens' assembly could be on the way.

* Perhaps it's not the best time to bring it up. But the only folk who responded positively for my call for hospices to make alcohol available on their premises were a few patients and families of those who felt it might have benefited them. It's over two years now since a lady consultant introduced a wine bar for patients of her palliative-care unit and their families. The unit is part of the Clermont-Ferrard University Hospital in the heart of France, and the idea was that a glass of wine in the evening or with meals might cheer up the difficult day-to-day existence for some patients. The move also helped families to relax in a difficult environment. There have been no drunks, patients or relatives, that needed security to evict them. In fact, it has been so successful that the instigator, Dr Virginie Guastella, is now organising wine-tasting evenings for her patients. Friendly donors contribute bottles towards the cause. Perhaps one small measure of humanity is left in medicine.

* I was clearing out a stock of old photographs the other day, when I came across a snap I had taken of a short poem. It had no name on it, and I cannot remember from whence it came. It sounds like Spike Milligan, but something tells me it may have been written by a doctor. It sums up perfectly my attitude to the mad milks of modern supermarkets. It is simply called Moo!


Fresh Low Fat

Plus Calcium

Enriched with

Vitamins A and D.

If I was a cow

That would be

much too


for me.

* Ireland pretty well ignores its medical leaders. But across in Britain they celebrate new 'top doctors' on the scene and send journalists off to see what makes them tick. In recent weeks, the Royal College of GPs elected an attractive lady doctor from Staffordshire called Helen Stokes-Lampard as its new chair, and the media went to off to check her bonnet for bees. Voted top of the list of most powerful GPs by Pulse magazine, Dr Helen works one day a week in practice, and has academic duties, too. I always feel that medics who don't practice every day find the bigger picture easier to see. Dr Helen has some cool views on public health. She says that low-income families simply don't have the money for five-a-day fruit-and-vegetable consumption for the whole family. Dr Helen believes that getting smokers to cut down their habit might have a better outcome for doctor-patient relationships than insisting on cutting the weed out completely. And she has expressed doubts about this month's new stricter alcohol guidelines, which suggest that men should only drink the same 14 units per week that women do. "Hard task to achieve," she says. A very wise top woman indeed.

Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the 'Irish Medical Directory'

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