Drink culture: Legislation essential to save lives

THE extent to which the consumption of alcohol dominates Irish social, cultural and domestic life is well documented. It is reflected in our music, our literature and our art and is mostly presented as a benign indulgence, resulting in little harm to the imbibers or those surrounding them – part of what we are.

That’s the fiction but the documentary or the reality TV show reveals a very different, more disturbing story, one part of it suggesting it is just the downside of the ‘craic’; the other, a more salutory lesson in the real cost of drinking.

The cost of alcohol abuse on the health system has been highlighted in a new report compiled by the Health Research Board. It shows that the effects of alcohol consumption were responsible for 10% of money spent on public health care in 2013.

Alcohol abuse was responsible for three deaths every day in 2013, according to the report but that is not the full extent of the problem. It is not just what Irish people drink, but the way we drink that causes harm. In other words, we are a nation of binge drinkers.

Figures from three years ago indicate that more than 50% of Irish drinkers consume alcohol in a harmful manner - too much alcohol in one sitting and more than the recommended number of standard drinks in a week.

Ireland, by international standards, has a high level of alcohol consumption, overall and in single sessions. Moreover, over half the population drink in a harmful manner, making harmful drinking more the norm than the exception. Not only that, but the notion that it is only old men in pubs who drink too much is far from reality.

In fact, the younger generation abuse alcohol more than those who went before them.

According to the latest figures, the greatest burden of health harm is experienced by younger people. Three-quarters of all alcohol-related hospitalisations and deaths occurred among people under 65 years of age. The sharp rise in the number of young people developing alcoholic liver disease is a particular cause for concern. The steep increase in alcoholic liver disease among those aged under 35 years is a worrying consequence of our harmful drinking patterns.

Alcoholic also has a huge influence on suicide and those who self-harm. Alcohol is also responsible for three deaths each day and approximately 4,000 self harm presentations at hospitals each year.

All of these horrific statistics point to the importance of implementing the Publich Health (Alcohol) Bill which is meandering its way through the Oireachtas like a drunken sailor on a night out.

The report estimates the cost of the problem to hospitals at €1.5 billion but the social and human cost is far greater than that. The measure, drafted last year to reduce consumption, includes minimum unit pricing and advertising restrictions. It is not the most elegant piece of legislation but it is essential to save lives. It needs resolute action by all members of the Oireachtas to ensure its passing.


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