Public health experts said harmful drinking was the “norm” in Irish society and that people were in “denial” about their drinking.
Even though the vast majority of people describe themselves as moderate or occasional consumers, 30% admit they have experienced harmful events from their own drinking or that of others.
These harmful events include money problems, family difficulties, physical fights, health issues, work absences, and entanglements with the gardaí.
The findings are contained in a major piece of research, the National Alcohol Diary Survey, conducted by the Health Research Board.
The survey, the first study of its kind in Ireland, lifts the lid on how households are consuming alcohol. Almost 6,000 people in nearly 4,000 homes took part in the research, conducted between July and October 2013.
The survey found:
- 54% of 18- to 75-year-old consumers are harmful drinkers — equating to between 1.3m and 1.4m people;
- Harmful drinking rates are highest among 18- to 24-yearolds, at 75%;
- 7% of adults aged 18 to 75 are alcoholics (or dependent) — jumping to 15% among 18- to 24-year-olds;
- 75% of all alcohol consumed was taken in binge-drinking sessions (defined as three or more pints or most of a bottle of wine in one session);
- Based on expenditure patterns, Irish people spend almost €51m a week on alcohol;
- 3,230 work or study years were lost through alcohol- related illness in the year prior to the study.
The HRB said that the findings were a “serious underestimate” of the true impact of alcohol. Researchers believe people surveyed only reported around 40% of their actual consumption. This is based on actual per capita consumption calculated by the Revenue Commissioners.
Co-author Jean Long said there needed to be “serious emphasis” on people who consider themselves light or moderate drinkers but who, in reality, are not.
“These people aren’t dependent yet, but are drinking in a very harmful manner,” said Dr Long. “This will have, and is already having knock-on effects on their health and they don’t realise it.”
Public health expert Joe Barry said: “In a sense, there is national denial at one level, because the percentage of people who classify themselves as light or moderate drinkers is 98%, which suggests a disconnect between what people think is causing harm and the evidence.”
Alcohol Action Ireland said: “We can no longer afford to accept our harmful relationship with alcohol as the norm.”
The Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland welcomed the study but said other research showed that consumption levels had fallen by 25% since 2001. ABFI senior executive Thomas Burke said the definition of binge-drinking “does not help in identifying those most at risk”.