Cheers to Shortall for igniting drink debate, but is she right?

JUNIOR minister Roísín Shortall should be congratulated on trying to stimulate a national debate on alcohol consumption, especially among young people.

Her approach is unlikely to be popular with many, especially as she clearly favours increasing alcohol prices in a bid to curtail consumption. But isn’t it good to see a minister taking the opportunity of the power of her position to try to do as she thinks right, of confronting rather than pandering to popular opinion? Too many politicians play it safe, only doing what is popular and populist in a bid to curry electoral favour instead of using the opportunity they have been given to effect real change.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Shortall’s approach is necessarily going to be correct and have the outcome she desires. And admittedly she is acting on something put in train by her predecessor two years ago, the putting together of a special report on substance misuse. Notwithstanding that however many such reports get buried whereas clearly Shortall is determined not to do so.

Shortall has come to some fairly stark conclusions. She believes that we drink too much alcohol in this country and that the costs to society of such decisions by individuals are too high for the State and society to bear. She has cited a report that has calculated the cost of alcohol abuse annually at about €3.7 billion, made up mainly of health costs and missing work days. (That, admittedly is not the net cost: the State gets enormous revenues in excise duty on the sale of alcohol and other taxes that arise from pubs, restaurants, brewing and such activities).

Shortall took the debate in another direction this week when she criticised parents who allow their teenage children to drink at home. She did so even though she acknowledged that parents who do so are trying to be responsible, that they are trying to regulate the drinking of their teenage children in this way. It’s easy to see why they would try to do so. If you introduce children slowly to alcohol they can develop a tolerance more readily.

As importantly it takes the sense of daring away from the activity, the desire to drink with friends in fields or behind bushes, or other unsafe environments. It offers greater control over with whom the drinking is done. Teenagers who drink in these circumstances may be prone to being offered and using other drugs, and may become involved in drunken sexual activity.

And yet, Shortall believes it is the wrong approach. It is interesting that she believes that it is OK to reprimand parents for their choices about this. But she believes it is right to quote medical facts and the law.

Dr Conor Farren, one of the foremost experts on mental health in this country, is a strong advocate against overuse of alcohol. He believes it is a major contributor to depression and other serious mental health issues. Indeed, he argues that if alcohol would be banned if it was to be invented now and be presented to the US Food and Drink Administration as a product for sale, such are its dangerous side-effects. He is particularly worried about the impact of alcohol on the developing brain. It seems to be the case that the brain is less able to cope with alcohol while it is still growing, until about the age of 21. This can cause all sorts of issues in relation to judgement exercised when drunk or hungover: how many suicides of young people can be linked to mental issues caused by alcohol use?

It is against the law for a retailer to sell alcohol to an under-18 or for somebody over that age to supply it to minors. It is hard to imagine the gardaí entering a parent’s house and challenging them over such behaviour, but what if a child became intoxicated while in the company of a parent and some accident befell them? Parental responsibility would surely have to be challenged then.

What does it say about cultivating respect for the law if a parent tells a child it is all right to imbibe alcohol before the age of 18? And why tolerate and indeed encourage the consumption of alcohol and not other harmful substances? Would a parent provide cigarettes for smoking in the home, on the basis that they won’t then do it elsewhere? It’s doubtful, as smoking will take place elsewhere, just as anti-alcohol advocates say home drinkers will do so elsewhere too once they get the taste for it. Why treat smoking differently to drinking? And what about other drugs?

And while we’re at it: would parents who allow teenage drinking at home also encourage their children to have boyfriends or girlfriends sleep over? This is a topic for another day but I read a fascinating piece recently about such practices in Holland, where it is common for 15 and 16 year old to let “partners” stay the night.

The rate of teenage pregnancies and abortions runs at about a quarter of the US rate where teenagers are more likely to make out at drunken parties or in the backs of cars, rushing whenever opportunity presents itself. The claim is that encouraging what seems like permissiveness actually works better in controlling teenage sexual behaviour).

But let’s stick with the alcohol for now: many parents may need to consider just what example they are setting to their children by their pattern of the consumption of alcohol at home.

There was a time when many parents went to the pub and came home quietly, so that their children may not have been even aware that their parents had been drinking. There were always the stories of course of parents coming home drunk, loudly falling in the door, sometimes causing havoc and violence to the great distress of children. But it may not have been nearly as prevalent as claimed.

What now though if parents are drinking at home before and after the children go to bed? What if it is happening every night, that a bottle of wine is being opened with every dinner? If the adults have friends in and drink copious amounts? If the kids are kept awake by the noise from downstairs? If they come down the following morning to find the house filthy, with empty bottles everywhere? What do children make of the trends to mark major events in their lives (such as religious events like Catholic communion or confirmation) with a party at which the adults drink loads of alcohol?

But even if that is so is that any of Roísín Shortall’s business or that of any other minister or government-employed official? Shortall might want to start a debate but should she be able to regulate what goes on behind a person’s own front door?

And what, I wonder, must the children think? Will they reject the behaviour of their parents as inappropriate or will they seek to emulate it as soon as they can, even under the watchful eye of parents who may be in little position to judge effectively?

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm

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