Alcohol misuse causes more damage than poverty, violent crime, unemployment, all the cancers, and all the other drug addictions combined in this society.
One person dies every seven hours from an alcohol-related illness. One-in-three road deaths is alcohol-related and one-in-four admissions to hospital emergency departments is alcohol-related. More relationships fail because of alcohol misuse than any other issue. More businesses are lost and careers ruined because of the astonishing grip that drink has on so many of us. Our international image is damaged, too often with our ill-judged compliance, by our inability to create or sustain a beneficial relationship with drink.
If described in monetary terms, the statistics defining the crisis are staggering. One estimate suggests that alcohol-related issues cost this economy €3.7bn a year. To put that in context last week’s budget took €3.5bn out of our economy. Apart at all from the tragic human cost, these figures are daunting and must be confronted despite our long-term reluctance to do so.
This week the Irish Examiner reported that the long-overdue national alcohol strategy has been deferred until next year despite promises it would be finalised before Christmas. Though very disappointing this evasion cannot be described as surprising. It is just the latest in a long line of failures to take a strong position on alcohol abuse in Ireland.
Like the tobacco industry before it, the drinks industry is fighting a dogged rearguard action. Though not in any way as powerful as it once was, any force as powerful as the drinks industry has the capacity to intimidate legislators and, like the tobacco industry did, delay if not stymie controlling legislation.
Speaking at the annual Irish Medical Organisation Doolin Lecture in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin recently, Dr Declan Bedford, a public health specialist, warned that alcohol was identified as a potential trigger for abuse in one-third of the most severe domestic abuse cases and that an estimated 61,000 children are affected by their parents’ drinking.
Despite this irrefutable and mounting evidence little enough has been done to curb our enthusiasms for a drug with such destructive potential. Former junior health minister Róisín Shortall’s isolation when she tried to launch a new alcohol policy said a lot about our institutionalised ambivalence on the issue. That so few of her senior colleagues turned up at the launch of her alcohol awareness programme meant it was doomed. Our cultural position is less than helpful too. As Fr Peter McVerry points out, we regard alcoholism as a disease but consider a dependence on any other drug an addiction. This distinction has been used to allow us be more tolerant of alcohol abuse than most other societies are. Thankfully this is changing, even if change comes too slowly.
Most of us will, over the next dozen or so days, mark Christmas by sharing drinks with friends, family, and/or work colleagues. Some of us will drink sensibly but too many of us will drink to the point where we harm ourselves and are a threat to others. Despite warning after warning, we will drink far to excess and think little or nothing of it once we get over that hangover.
Of course the greatest dodge, the greatest ambivalence of all, is that we don’t really need government to do anything to change our dangerous drinking habits. We just have to learn to say, “no thanks, I’ve had enough”. It can’t be that hard.
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