‘At 19, God almighty, you haven’t even your first step on the road to adulthood’ 

Since he lost his son to alcohol-related suicide, John Higgins has campaigned against the grip drink has on young people, and opposes the industry’s involvement in schools via Drinkaware
‘At 19, God almighty, you haven’t even your first step on the road to adulthood’ 

John Higgins with a photo of his son David who he lost to alcohol-related suicide at the age of 19. 'Since David went, there have been a few more [deaths] that we would have known of, but people just don’t speak out.' Picture: Karen Cox

A candle, kept lit day and night, helps the Higgins family remember their only son David, who they lost in 2011 at the age of 19 to an alcohol-related suicide.

“It’s still like yesterday,” his father John Higgins says. “I often wake up wondering ‘Jesus, did that really happen?’

“People say, ‘ah give it time’. It softens a bit, but it comes back, and it whacks you. There’ll be times when it hits you like a ton of bricks.”

Only this year, the year David would have turned 30, the family moved his car.

“It was there, it was a reminder. We decided among ourselves it was time to go, but the memories don’t go.”

David Higgins drowned in the early hours of March 13, 2011. He was last seen walking along the Lower Bridge in Ballina at approximately 6.30am. His body was discovered 14 days later following searches of the river.

19-year-old David Higgins died due to alcohol-related suicide. His dad, John, says of the inquest: ‘Nothing was left unsaid on the day. I was in bits, I’ll be honest with you. It was terrible, it was hard.’ Picture: Karen Cox
19-year-old David Higgins died due to alcohol-related suicide. His dad, John, says of the inquest: ‘Nothing was left unsaid on the day. I was in bits, I’ll be honest with you. It was terrible, it was hard.’ Picture: Karen Cox

He’d attended a house party where large amounts of alcohol were consumed, and he had appeared upset after being asked to leave.

The time David spent missing was already hell for the family. To add to the cruelty, John suffered a second devastating loss during these two weeks, when his close friend drowned while out searching for David alone.

“My old buddy Tommy, he was one of the nicest blokes you could meet. We have David’s photo and my friend Tommy, two photos are in the hallway, and there’s a candle. 

"We light the candle all day and all night. 

If anyone gets up in the night, and the candle is out, just a little tealight, they light it again. Just our way of dealing with it.”

The inquest into David’s death recorded a verdict of death by suicide, with alcohol as a contributory factor.

Mr Higgins was glad this was recorded on his son’s death certificate.

“It wasn’t going to be brushed under the counter. 

"Since David went, there have been a few more [deaths] that we would have known of, but people just don’t speak out.

“I know it’s not easy, and I’m not saying we’re great for doing it or anything like that. But when we got the chance [to speak out], we said we have to. I know we wouldn’t be flavour of the month with a lot of people for saying these things, but I don’t care.”

'I just see Drinkaware as being another arm of the alcohol industry,' says John Higgins, who contrasts drink producers' stated concern about responsible drinking with events such as Arthur's Day. Picture: Dan Linehan
'I just see Drinkaware as being another arm of the alcohol industry,' says John Higgins, who contrasts drink producers' stated concern about responsible drinking with events such as Arthur's Day. Picture: Dan Linehan

“Well, that’s wrong,” he corrected himself. “I do care but I don’t care what people think. At the end of the day, if you can save a life... At 19, God almighty, you haven’t even your first step on the road to adulthood.”

Mr Higgins knew the day in the coroner’s court would be harrowing for the family.

Nothing was left unsaid on the day. I was in bits, I’ll be honest with you. It was terrible, it was hard. 

Addressing his son’s inquest, Mr Higgins said that while many factors had contributed to David’s death, alcohol had played a large part. He described the availability of cheap alcohol as a “plague in Irish society”.

As a young man, David was quiet.

“He was more outgoing when he had drink on him, but he was pretty quiet besides. He was great with his hands, brilliant. I had visions of him being a mechanic because he was good like that.

“He’d a good group of friends, they weren’t all drinkers. One lad in particular who wasn’t drinking, he was my go-to man. I’d ring him at night if David was missing and wasn’t coming home.

John Higgins says he is glad his son's death certificate records the cause of death as alcohol-related suicide, and wants to warn others: ‘When we got the chance [to speak out], we said we have to.’ 	Picture: Karen Cox
John Higgins says he is glad his son's death certificate records the cause of death as alcohol-related suicide, and wants to warn others: ‘When we got the chance [to speak out], we said we have to.’  Picture: Karen Cox

“I’m no prude, I was young myself and I took a drink, sometimes I took more than I should have but it had gone to a different level with David and his friends by the time it came around to them.

“David, I suppose, you know when he started his drinking, he never drank socially. He was 17 when he started drinking, which was probably late for an Irish teenager.

“Once he started, that was it. It wouldn’t be every night because he wouldn’t have the money for it — he was between jobs, you know what young fellas are like. Nine times out of 10 he’d end up in a flat or a house party somewhere.”

Mr Higgins’ address at the inquest, and subsequent interview with Anton McNulty of The Mayo News where he spoke about losing David while calling for tighter regulation around the cost of alcohol, drew national attention.

“I was nearly cracking up with it, but we just thought look we have an opportunity to say something here.”

In the years since, he has become accustomed to campaigning, writing letters, meeting politicians, speaking in Leinster House, and getting involved with Alcohol Action Ireland.

John Higgins told 'The Mayo News' he believed minimum pricing could help counter people 'stacking up' on alcohol. Stock picture: iStock
John Higgins told 'The Mayo News' he believed minimum pricing could help counter people 'stacking up' on alcohol. Stock picture: iStock

He advocated for the introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol products, telling The Mayo News in the wake of David’s death that if alcohol was more expensive, it would prevent people from ‘stacking up’ and having house parties.

At the time, a can of cider was available for as little €1.20, the same as a can of Coke.

“I wouldn’t have been great at public speaking but after a while, I decided I’m just going to say it as it is, and if they don’t like it, they don’t like it and that’s it.”

He wrote to the Irish Examiner after this newspaper reported in October about a schools education programmes run by Drinkaware, an organisation with charity status, funded through corporate donations from the alcohol industry.

This week, ICAAN (the Irish Community Action on Alcohol Network) called on the Government to issue a circular to all schools which would remove Drinkaware’s presence from schools across the country.

And yesterday (Friday), a letter was sent from the Department of Education and the HSE to schools explicitly warning them not to use alcohol industry-funded programmes such as Drinkaware’s in the classroom.

Approximately 15,000 students are estimated to have been educated with resources from the Drinkaware schools programme.

While the organisation has charitable status, 99% of Drinkaware’s funding last year came via corporate donations from the alcohol industry. This includes companies such as Diageo — the name behind Guinness, as well as Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, and Johnnie Walker whiskey — Bulmers, and Heineken Ireland, as well as Aldi, Lidl, and Coca-Cola Hellenic.

Drinkaware CEO Sheena Horgan maintains its schools programme would be no different whether it was funded by the HSE or industry. File picture
Drinkaware CEO Sheena Horgan maintains its schools programme would be no different whether it was funded by the HSE or industry. File picture

In line with Department of Education guidelines, the organisation offers its training programmes to teachers, who in turn use the resources, prompts, and materials developed by the organisation in classrooms.

The full set of lessons, resources, prompts, teaching manual, and materials are not available to view online and are only available to teachers who complete the training with Drinkaware.

However, Drinkaware says it has offered to make its research and expertise available to inform any publicly-funded programmes and this offer still stands.

In a statement, it said it is the “only provider of a primary prevention programme to tackle underage drinking in Ireland”.

Lessons on the programme focus on topics including self-image, resisting peer pressure, friendships, and healthy coping skills.

The programme also covers influences, including social media, as well as a lesson on the Public Health Act.

No images of alcohol are used to illustrate lessons, and videos are used regularly as classroom prompts.

Drinkaware tells teachers that lessons should never be delivered in isolation but as part of a spiral and developmental programme.

Speaking on RTÉ this week, chief executive Sheena Horgan said Drinkaware is a registered charity under the remit of the Charities Regulator and that the programme would be no different whether it was funded by the HSE or industry.

“It’s very much around the harms associated with mental and physical health and wellbeing, it’s about the life skills and everything else that children required. It is not about normalising or teaching children how to drink or when to drink, it’s about encouraging them and empowering them not to drink at all because alcohol has no place in childhood.”

However, public health experts who have spoken to the Irish Examiner warn that numerous independent evaluations have found that industry-funded educational resources tend to follow a pattern, obscuring the facts around alcohol and its harmful effects, while shifting blame back onto individuals.

An analysis of industry-backed programmes in the UK, including that of Drinkaware UK, found that these types of initiatives in schools often focused on peer pressure and parental responsibility while obscuring the role that the industry plays.

Drinkaware said this research did not include the Drinkaware Ireland alcohol education programme and requested that this article explicitly state this.

Mark Pettigrew and May van Schalkwyk, key researchers involved in the UK analysis, told the Irish Examiner that the tobacco industry used a similar approach to deflect away from concerns about the industry.

“It’s all about peers, and it’s all about parents,” Professor Pettigrew said.

“These types of organisations are set up by the alcohol industry, or by the food industry, or by the tobacco industry, in order to help companies avoid advertising restrictions, in order to access young people and to restore the credibility of the industry.

“It allows them to build allegiances with credible, trusted organisations. It’s a bit like healthwashing or greenwashing. It’s teacherwashing.

“It allows them to benefit from the trust given to teachers.”

Tom Babor, an advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO) and one of the key authors of Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity, told the Irish Examiner alcohol education can help change knowledge and attitudes. 

“But only in high intensity, expensive, well-designed programmes which use behavioural techniques that are for the most part targeted at the high-risk kids and their parents,” Professor Babor adds.

“Alcohol education is one small part of a larger picture, and what Drinkaware is doing is not going to solve the problem, and it’s not a substitute for more effective policies.”

The financial contributions that Drinkaware gets from the industry create conflicts of interest, he added.

“When these kinds of conflict of interests have been studied carefully by social scientists in countries like the US, Canada, and the UK, they have been shown to influence even a so-called independent organisation like Drinkaware. They subtly bias the agenda and the ways that they do their programme activities so that they are consistent, or at least not against, the main strategies of the funding agencies.” 

Industry's involvement in schools 'an insult' 

John Higgins finds it disrespectful to think that an alcohol industry-funded initiative could be involved with David’s school.

John Higgins says it is 'rich' seeing the drinks industry purporting to promote responsible drinking while hosting the likes of Diageo's Arthur's Day at the Guinness Hopstore, Dublin, in 2011. File picture: Julien Behal/PA
John Higgins says it is 'rich' seeing the drinks industry purporting to promote responsible drinking while hosting the likes of Diageo's Arthur's Day at the Guinness Hopstore, Dublin, in 2011. File picture: Julien Behal/PA

“I just think it would be an insult, to be honest,” he said.

“You look back and you see all the different times the industry has had various groups, or organisations — they had the Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society (MEAS), then they had this ‘Stop Out of Control Drinking’.

That was rich coming from Diageo at the time, who on the other hand were promoting Arthur’s Day.

"I get uptight when I think about them.

“I just see Drinkaware as being another arm of the alcohol industry. Even though they’ll say, ‘oh we’re not, we’re not’; They are.

“They are funded by them and they have no place whatsoever in society to be quite honest. It’s just not acceptable to me.

“The money they are using to fund Drinkaware is tainted money, that’s my opinion."

A new buzzword seems to be “mindful drinking”, he said, adding that a lot of people don’t seem to realise what a harmful dangerous drug alcohol can be.

“Just because you put the word ‘legal’ doesn’t make it any less dangerous. We have such a history of alcohol abuse in this country, it’s almost like people don’t want to know about it.”

Industry-funded groups obscure this message, he said.

“I’ve nothing personally against the people who work in Drinkaware. My issue is with the people who fund it.

“Maybe the people in Drinkaware are good-hearted people who believe that they can do well, and maybe they can but not in the environment they are in as far as I am concerned.”

Mr Higgins had called for an explicit directive issued to schools, to warn them against using Drinkaware programmes.

“Even the Taoiseach said he’d prefer if they weren’t there,” he said.

Mr Higgins welcomed the news that such a directive was finally issued on Friday. He said that the group has “no place” near schools.

• Additional reporting by Liz Dunphy

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