Here is Sunday’s column. As I mentioned before it is terribly dull and humourless but I got some emails this morning praising it, so having been externally validated I publish it here for you, my most discerning readers.
“Women are always after equality aren’t they? It appears that in some areas, we’re finally getting there. Last year, 47% of the under-17’s discharged from hospital due to alcohol related illnesses were women. Well done girls! This is exactly why feminists fought the good fight : so you could get so completely pissed as a teenager you had to be hospitalised. There are lots of reasons to be depressed when reading the Health Research Board’s report into alcohol consumption in Ireland, but that’s just one of them.
Women’s physiology is intrinsically different to men’s which means that the same level of alcohol affects them more seriously. In other cultures, women therefore tend to drink less. In Ireland, the remorseless ritual of binge drinking by women is destroying their health, putting them into vulnerable situations where at worst they risk rape or at best a casual sexual encounter that will leave them with a sexually transmitted disease, an unwanted pregnancy or a deluded perspective of their supposed sexual freedom. Is this what feminists fought for? So that young women could use their economic independence to get drunk, throw up and wonder who they had sex with last night? Those who think they are above such behaviour should count the mornings they’ve dragged themselves into the office dying with a hangover wondering how much money they spent last night. What a fine way to channel the incredible energy and vitality of Irish women.
Still, I shouldn’t be so hard on the fairer sex. I’ve done it all myself but honestly, that was just a phase and I grew out of it. Why aren’t we as a nation growing out of our habitual excessive drinking? In the general population men suffer significantly more from alcohol related problems as they drink about three times more than women. From illness to violence to simply arguing with a friend with drink taken, on every scale you care to measure, the Irish are top of the European Alco-Pops. Not only do we drink more, we binge, drive drunk, occupy hospital and psychiatric beds and spend more money on booze than any of our European neighbours.
You can argue that if people want to behave in a self-destructive way that’s their business and we should let them at it. But our national love affair with booze is costing us a fortune, not just in terms of money and mental or physical harm, but in the sheer waste of human potential. It’s utterly depressing to think what could be achieved in this country on Saturday and Sunday mornings if the nation’s finest weren’t nursing hangovers.
The worst thing about this extraordinarily destructive behaviour is the way it occupies a national blind spot. We have convinced ourselves that the appalling side effects of our gross alcohol habits are all part of having the “craic”. Going out with the specific goal of getting intoxicated is a casually accepted part of what passes for Irish social life.
As the undeniable and shameful statistics outlined in the report are parsed over this weekend you can expect to read lots of psycho-social analysis about Irish drinking culture. We insist on constructing some Brendan Behanesque romantic vision of the soulful Irish singing and dancing in high spirits with the necessary aid of spirits and whatever you’re having yourself.
It’s the famine, the poitin, the emigration and the poverty. No, it’s the weather, the British and the Catholic Church – the suppression of our sexual desires don’t you know. Does it matter anymore? We drink too much and its time to get over it.
Watch out for other justifications: we’re drinking more wine at home; we’ve more money; we’ve a bigger, younger, population. All true, but look at the other side. Beer and cider account for 60% of our alcohol consumption. Not too much of that taking place at sophisticated dinner parties. The survey showed that each person over 15 years of age drank 13.36 litres last year. However Ireland has a higher level of abstinence : people who never drink : than other European countries so that figure is actually much higher per head of the drinking population.
So what will we do about it? A 2006 EU report compiled a useful list of strategies that do and don’t work in reducing alcohol consumption. Here’s what works: unrestricted breath testing, lower blood alcohol concentration for drivers, licence regulation and taxation. Here’s what doesn’t: advertising self regulation and designated driver campaigns.
What did Ireland do? Some of what does work and more of what doesn’t.
Lower blood alcohol levels for drivers is being introduced gradually. Random breath testing has been implemented, though as far as I can see it’s restricted to the week before Christmas rather than systematic weekends. They tried taxation once and it had an immediate impact. Between 1995 and 2002 consumption of spirits increased steadily (by 49%) but decreased by 21% in 2003 when excise duty was increased. Cider consumption dropped by 13% in 2002 when excise was increased in December 2001. As that was so successful we stopped doing it in subsequent budgets. I imagine the liquor industry wasn’t too impressed.
One noticeable gap in our system is the failure to tackle underage drinking. Here’s a crazy idea that wouldn’t cost anything. What would happen if each Garda station decided to raid one night club in its locality each weekend demanding to see the ID of customers? I wonder what they’d find? Lots of 16 year olds and letters of outrage from the licensing industry?
Speaking of the industry, what happened to licence regulation? The EU did after all prove that regulation is very effective in reducing alcohol intake. Looking for recommendations, the government established a Commission on Liquor Licensing that produced four reports between 2000 and 2003. Its remit included â€˜taking due account of the social, health and economic interests of a modern society’. Who was on the Commission? Oh you know, mostly members of the licensing trade. What did the government expect? That turkeys would vote for Christmas?
So say hello to self-regulation. On Thursday night’s Prime Time Rosemary Garth, Director of the Alcohol Beverages Federation of Ireland with a straight face argued that alcohol is not marketed to young people. I missed what she said next because my husband and I were rolling around on the floor laughing. She later claimed the industry was only interested in something called “sustainable profits”.
What’s an unsustainable profit? These are publicly listed companies required to produce year on year growth. The only thing that’s unsustainable is the idea that the drinks industry would forego the opportunity to sell their products to anyone. It’s the job of the government to regulate their efforts. Let’s not kid ourselves. Irish people respond to law enforcement – not appeals to our better nature. If we want to get real about reducing alcohol consumption can we stop asking the drink industry for advice?”
Update: Waters addressed the same issue in his column yesterday. (sub reqd) He argues for more analysis…
” The issue, then, is educational in the deepest sense. The societal abuse of alcohol indicates a serious cultural deficiency, converging on a cultural inability to comprehend how the natural mechanism that is humanity should properly function. To put it as starkly as possible: we have lost the capacity to teach our children how to live.
It is relatively futile to think in terms of restrictions on opening hours, higher taxes or random breath testing. These measures may show results in some narrower context, but they do nothing to address the deeper problem, which just goes underground from such responses. We need first of all to acknowledge what alcohol is, what it does, how we have used it, and why its escalating consumption is not, in hardly any sense at all, a symptom of our increasing conviviality. We need to acknowledge that, in bequeathing such a culture to our children, we are sentencing them to a lifestyle and a way of coping with reality that can have for them but one of two outcomes: madness or death.”