54% of moderate users of alcohol are ‘harmful drinkers’

Most drinkers tend to see alcohol problems as really someone else’s, unless, maybe, they are victims of another person’s actions.

54% of moderate users of alcohol are ‘harmful drinkers’

The vast majority see themselves as largely normal, recreational users, perhaps with the odd, acceptable over-indulgence.

But the latest piece of research is quite sobering.

The National Alcohol Diary Survey lifts the lid on ordinary households across the country. It asked the members of those households to carry out a detailed chart of their drinking habits and the consequences thereof.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of people thought they were average enough drinkers. Four out of 10 described themselves as moderate drinkers and just under six out of ten said they were light drinkers. Only 2% classified themselves as heavy drinkers.

However, when the experts at the Health Research Board tabulated and analysed the results, they painted a very different picture.

They found that 54% were, in actual fact, “harmful drinkers”, as defined by the World Health Organisation. In addition, 7% were dependent, or, to use layman’s terms, alcoholics.

Co-author Jean Long of the HRB yesterday explained that a harmful drinker is one who drinks two to three times a week or more, has five to six drinks on a single occasion, and binge-drinks at least once a week.

The crux of the matter here is the definition of binge-drinking. The six drinks mentioned above is only the equivalent to three pints of beer, six or more pub measures of spirits, and more than 600ml of wine (a regular bottle is 750ml).

“Because we are Irish, that doesn’t seem much,” accepted Dr Long, but added that, in international terms, it was a lot.

She said Irish people appear to be “unable to see” the reality of their drinking.

Dr Long said that one in five self-proclaimed light drinkers were actually binge-drinkers and that half of moderate drinkers were too.

And the true reality is probably a lot worse.

Dr Long said the research was a “very serious underestimate” of the problem.

She said Revenue figures on the amount of alcohol each person consumes is a lot higher than the HRB research would suggest.

She said the survey suggests that what respondents told them only represents about 40% of their actual consumption.

Dr Long said this was a very common phenomenon, particularly in countries with a high proportion of harmful drinkers.

All of this means, according to Dr Long, that there needs to be a particular focus on the bulk of drinkers: Those who consider themselves to be normal users.

“Light and moderate drinkers that binge-drink, that’s where we need serious emphasis,” she said. “These people aren’t dependent, but they are drinking in a very harmful manner. This will have, and is already having, knock-on effects, on their health and they don’t realise it.

“You don’t know if you are developing liver problems until you develop the symptoms and that can take a few years.”

Harmful drinking is now the “norm” in Ireland, she said.

Joe Barry, a public health expert at Trinity College, agreed and said there seemed to be a “national denial” among drinkers and the country generally.

“It [the research] debunks the myth from the alcohol industry that the vast majority of Irish people drink sensibly or responsibly,” said Prof Barry.

However, the industry believes the definition of binge-drinking “does not help those most at risk”.

The Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland pointed out that consumption of alcohol per capita has fallen by 25% since 2001.

Prof Barry said the time has come for the Government to act. Dr Long believes the Government “has begun to take alcohol seriously”.

What that means for the vast bulk of ‘normal’ drinkers remains to be seen.

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