Indeed, it is far too often destructive and demeaning; far too many lives, families, relationships, businesses and friendships have been destroyed by its misuse. In many ways, along with emigration and dishonesty, it is our national curse.
However, yesterday’s figures from the Health Research Board (HRB), which are the most detailed picture yet of Irish people’s relationship with alcohol, are startling. The HRB found that 150,000 people are dependent on alcohol and that 1.35m of us are harmful drinkers. This means that about one-in-four of us inflict harm on ourselves because of our drinking habits.
Despite this, HRB researchers believe the report underestimates how much we drink, in some instances by as much as 60%. It is impossible to ignore these figures but it might be prudent to dig into them to help us better understand our misuse of drink and maybe contribute to a better, a more balanced national relationship with alcohol.
One of the basic characteristics of addiction is denial; denial that there is a dependency usually matched by repeated denials that there is a problem to be confronted. Yet, it is hardly a denial to suggest that defining a person who occasionally drinks more than three pints at one sitting as a problem drinker seems a narrow judgement based on theory rather than practice or culture. This argument stands even if the HRB found that 75% of alcohol consumed is done so as part of what it describes as a binge session. This definition possibly veers a little too close to the sanctimony that undermines the effectiveness of some vital public health campaigns. It may be accurate medically but it is, on cultural grounds, a little off the mark and, in the overall project of reducing alcohol misuse, possibly unhelpful.
To suggest this is not to condone or encourage excessive drinking, even excessive drinking on a very occasional basis, but rather an effort to properly define the problem so the startling figures reported by the HRB might be reduced.
Alcohol is a reality of life all through the Western world and the best response to this permanent challenge — and occasional joy — is a society that gives its children the self-confidence and self-assurance that will allow them behave responsibly when using alcohol. The role of good example, parents who do not abuse alcohol, cannot be underestimated in this hugely important cultural and health challenge.
That the HRB figures are so startling after a huge change in tolerance of drink driving suggests that the problem has been moved but not eradicated, but in the process a huge plank in Irish cultural life — the local pub — has been almost fatally weakened. These figures cannot be ignored and we must remake our relationship with drink, but any campaign aimed at doing that must be based on realistic and achievable targets if it is to have any prospect of success.