Forget ceol agus craic - we need to fix our problem with demon drink
As we launch into the festive season, there couldn't be a more appropriate time to have a bill before the Oireachtas to address in a comprehensive way the devastation caused to society and human health by alcohol abuse. Yet the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is under sustained fire from lobbyists for the alcohol, retail and advertising industries trying to persuade TDs to amend or delete some of its most important provisions.
TDs are particularly vulnerable to this sort of influence in rural areas. This has waned somewhat in recent times, but many TDs hold clinics in pubs and local hotels and rely on the goodwill of proprietors and small businesses.
Against a background of intensive lobbying, it is important that people know what this bill actually seeks to do. It was approved by Government this time last year and deals with a range of measures to minimise the harm associated with alcohol. It aims to reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland to 9.1 litres per person per annum by 2020. It covers health, labelling advertising, the display and separation of alcohol in shops and off licences, minimum unit pricing and the regulation of the sale and supply. Promotions involving cheap alcohol such as 'happy hours' will be restricted or in some cases banned for particular categories of people. Advertising alcohol will be restricted to giving specific information rather than glamorising the product, with a particular reference to child protection.
The grievance of those who oppose these provisions may be genuine as they will place onerous and costly obligations on them. But one fact overrides all other considerations in my view. It is that Ireland has a serious cultural problem with alcohol abuse. We can blame 400 years of oppression, the pain of mass migration and colonisation or even being repressed by religion. But whatever the cause, we have a problem.
As a nation we are overly 'fond of the drop'. This manifests itself in our literature and drama, with many of our creative artists being heavy drinkers. All our celebrations tend to involve alcohol. While the majority of people can be responsible around alcohol, there are too many who can't. In a report issued by the HSE in 2014, 28pc of people reported experiencing one or more negative consequence as a result of someone else's drinking. This included a family problem, assault, property vandalism, money issues and being a passenger with a drunk driver.
We have all grown up with an ambivalence about drink and the harm it causes. Generations of Irish children have normalised a parent being drunk either in the home or falling in the door having spent the night out drinking.
Small wonder then that it has become the norm for 15 to 16 year olds to start drinking while still in school. The mental and physical health effects of such drinking on young people are only now being appreciated. According to the Alcohol in Ireland report carried out by the Health Research Board this year, the rate of alcoholic liver disease discharges grew threefold between 1995 and 2013. The highest rate of increase was found among 15 to 34 year olds.
The same report lists a catalogue of statistics that make grim reading. Three people died each day in 2013 as a result of drinking alcohol. In 2014 one-in-three self-harm presentations were alcohol-related. In 2013 a total of 7,549 people entered treatment with alcohol as their main problem drug.
Alcohol is a feature in domestic violence, which is on the increase in Ireland. Our pavements are populated with rough sleepers, whose lives have been ruined by alcohol and drug abuse. The random violence that occurs each weekend in our towns and cities is fuelled by alcohol. And when it comes to carnage on our roads, the Road Safety Authority found that alcohol was a factor in 38pc of fatalities in a five-year period and the problem is getting worse.
So, it is high time that Government responded to these alcohol-related problems.
Other European countries do not share the same cultural attachments to the demon drink. In Spain, for example, where many Irish people spend holidays, it is rare to see a drunk native. Yet alcohol is cheaper and widely available.
Being inebriated, however, is socially frowned upon and ironically associated with British and Irish tourists. To be drunk while with young children is particularly seen as an appalling act deserving of police intervention.
I had cause to make a complaint to gardaí in Dún Laoghaire some years ago, when I and many other strollers witnessed an inebriated group of adults shouting and chastising children. Nobody came and when I rang back to enquire I was told that all they could do was take them to the station which wasn't appropriate for children. No alternative option was offered. It seemed there was a reluctance to interfere with parental rights at that time. One hopes the Children's Referendum in 2012 has changed that balance in favour of child protection.
Many of the calls to ChildLine funded by the ISPCC are from children fearful of drunken and abusive parents. Women's Aid is reporting an escalation in domestic violence, much of which is accompanied by alcohol abuse. A national study of domestic violence reported that one-quarter of domestic abuse cases always involved alcohol.
Seven per cent of all rape defendants had been drinking at the time of the alleged offence. Alcohol has been identified as a contributory factor in 97pc of public order offences.
Despite all of the above, we continue to market ourselves through the prism of drink. Visiting dignitaries and presidents are photographed with a pint. The Guinness Hop Store is the most frequented tourist destination. Our tourism is heavily dependent on the drinking culture of ceol agus craic. Temple Bar, which was meant to be a cultural centre, is now a sad barrio of drinking dens.
Calling time on our alcohol- soaked culture is long overdue. We know this. Let us hope that this legislation will pass in one piece so that we can be saved from ourselves.