Is Ireland falling out of love with alcohol?

 

A report this week claimed that alcohol consumption in Ireland is falling fast. But while many would consider these figures good news, will the drinks industry use them to pressurise the Government into relaxing restrictions – and us into drinking more? asks KATHY SHERIDAN

TWO EVENTS occurred this week, their significance depending on which end of the glass you might be pondering. The first was a report from the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI) containing the good news – you might think – that Irish people are drinking less. The second was the ground-breaking triumph for Limerick city publicans in getting the pubs open on Good Friday for the Munster-Leinster rugby clash in Thomond Park .

Some might call these two developments paradoxical. But not the rejoicing publicans, of course. “It’s a great day, a great day,” exulted one landlord, praising that “wise and sensible judge”, Tom O’Donnell, who had to adjudicate on whether Munster v Leinster is really a “special event” for pub-licensing purposes.

“Sure the same teams had only three head-to-heads in the past year,” chortled a local man. “What else was the poor judge to do?”

But everyone knew the judge’s decision was never truly about the singularity of the event. And despite the bizarre notion put about that 26,000 fans would be roaming the streets with nowhere to go, a seething, red-shirted security threat in the absence of the kindly publicans, everyone knew it wasn’t really about that either, since the same perfectly peaceable 26,000 ticket-holders could drink to their heart’s content in the stadium. And doesn’t anyone just go home after a match, asked Fr Adrian Egan, the Redemptorist and Munster fan, who still managed to see the funny side of that dystopian scenario: “What’s wrong with going home? Or going and doing different things?”

Whether it was all about the secular versus the sacred, or something far more mundane, Limerick T-shirt traders produced their instant verdict: “Officially bigger than the Catholic Church: Munster Rugby.” More to the point was one jubilant publican, who told the Irish Independent: “We have no bishop, no minister and no hurling team – but we can drink on Good Friday!”

Either way, the spoils were to the drinks industry, worth anything between €5 million and €13 million for licensees, depending on which spinner you’re listening to. But whatever your creed, the remaining impression is hardly uplifting. Not even the worst recession in history has altered the sense that no sporting event can take place in Ireland without tankers of alcohol on stand-by. In fact, the Limerick publicans used the recession to argue that they needed the Good Friday business. In short, because of the recession, they need more people to drink more.

This is the odd conflict contained within this week’s DIGI report. After decades of agitation about Ireland’s ranking as Europe’s top boozer, with widespread under-age drinking and alcohol abuse, average alcohol consumption is back at 1995/6 levels, apparently. And that has to be good news, right? Not in the DIGI universe, if language is any indicator. Last year’s report designated 2008 as “the worst performance in 25 years” for the drinks market in Ireland. Now the hand-wringing 2009 version reports: “Unfortunately the 2009 performance was worse than 2008 and the title of worst year now passes to 2009.”

Consumption per adult is down by 9.2 per cent. The total alcohol consumption figure – which anti-abuse advocates prefer – shows a fall of 8.9 per cent. None of the four alcohol categories was unaffected by this trend. Beer, cider and wine consumption all fell by about 6 or 7 per cent, but it was spirits that reeled away, punch-drunk, with a massive fall of 18.5 per cent.

DIGI chairman Kieran Tobin estimates that about half that fall in spirits is accounted for by cross-Border shopping expeditions. Cathal McHugh, a spokesman for the National Off-Licence Association, who operates two off-licences in north Dublin, says that vodka and Bacardi rum are prime purchases north of the Border. “It would have been €20 for a bottle of Smirnoff here and £11 in the North,” he says. And for portability purposes, vodka was always much better value than beer.

“You’d need to buy a crate of beer to make the saving you’d have got on one bottle of vodka. But the differential is closed now,” McHugh adds hurriedly, lest the exodus resumes.

The rest of the spirits decline may well be linked to the sad loss of our eastern European migrants, with their penchant for spirits. Tobin, whose day job is with Irish Distillers, notes that the big Polish vodka brand, Wyborowa, imported here by his group in the good years, has virtually disappeared again.

Cathal McHugh can almost track the trajectory of the construction industry by looking at sales of whiskey and brandy. Eastern Europeans provided “a major fillip to the spirits trade and revived drooping sales in brown spirits. The years 2005, 2006 and 2007 were good, then we started to decline, and then dipped.”

But if the cake or cask is diminishing in size, the big winners are the off-licences, whose share has doubled in just seven years to 60 per cent, marking the dramatic proliferation of retail outlets everywhere, from garage forecourts to small country groceries.

Fionnuala Sheehan, chief executive of Meas (Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society), the industry’s “responsible drinking” arm, believes this change to be a permanent shift. It’s what Behaviour Attitudes called the “Big Night In” featured among its emerging trends for 2010, characterised by the carry-out and DVD (or The X Factor on the television), the Lidl bar of chocolate and bottle of wine in the fridge.

The purchase point of that bottle of wine is the one issue that unites the otherwise discordant pub trade and off-licences. They are as one in their condemnation of the multiples’ use of alcohol to lure shoppers, by way of full-page advertising and promotional leaflets in Sunday newspapers. One supermarket has been offering six bottles of wine at €2.49 each.

“It’s a little disturbing to see it being used to get people over the threshold,” says McHugh. “We just feel it’s a little irresponsible.”

It’s all about price, and alcohol is no different – but it’s worth noting that while the value of the 2009 alcohol market declined by 6.88 per cent to €6.55 billion, alcohol prices as a whole actually rose by 2.3 per cent. This is partly attributed to “the carry-over effect of the October/November/December 2008 price increases caused by the increase in wine excise, the VAT increase from 21 per cent to 21.5 per cent and a price increase by some suppliers” – which probably means the industry passed on all the new charges.

Nonetheless, there is broad agreement that the recession has led to the declining market. As Gerard O’Neill, of Amárach Consulting, puts it, “people tend to forget that the pub is among the last bastions of cash transactions. It’s the one place you go where you worry about how much cash you have in your pocket”.

That view, interestingly, also backs up what the ESRI and public health advocates have claimed for years, that alcohol purchase is price-sensitive. As Dr Shane Butler, of Trinity College Dublin, has said repeatedly, topping the list of the most effective ways to tackle alcohol abuse is to make it expensive, mainly through tax increases. In the recession, the loss of jobs and income has acted as its own tax to some degree.

A Dublin city-centre publican laments the loss of the “buzzy young pre-mortgage crowd”, eight to 10 strong, who would, most days, drop in for a drink after work. “They’re not there any more. They’re either laid off and/or stuck with mortgages they can’t afford. They got caught and are having to make hard choices. And there are no new ones coming in. None of the insurance companies is taking in groups of young people now like they used to.”

HIS COMMENTS AREborne out by demographics. The modern baby-boomers, who made us Europe’s youngest country for a while, hit peak drinking age in the years around 2001, the year when – not coincidentally – the boom was in full swing, part-time jobs were plentiful and alcohol consumption hit a record high. They’re hitting their thirties now and, apart from the natural maturing process, were probably first in the firing line for over-valued houses and mortgages. But they gave it a lash in the good times and the figures are there to prove it. In 1986, the Irish drank 10.1 litres of pure alcohol per adult, according to public health expert Dr Joe Barry; by 2001, that figure had soared to 14.1 litres.

The spectacular rise and fall of alco-pops, the lurid candy-flavoured ready-mixes that pleased as many teenage palates as the parents they outraged, may well be another indicator of the trend. Blasted at their peak by a tax on spirits back in 2001-2003, alcopops are on the wane, says Cathal McHugh. “The ones currently selling have the Smirnoff/Bacardi brands attached, but they’re selling at a much lower level and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them dying off in the next few years.”

As the biggest drivers of the drinking market are young men aged 18 to 25, and that cohort is diminishing, it makes sense that general consumption would decline. But what grieves and goads the drinks industry is the fact that in the nine years since the record high of 2001, consumption has been declining, although that fact has not been widely broadcast. In 2006, the figure was 13.3 litres of pure alcohol consumed per adult; by 2009, this was down to 11.2 litres (plus about half a litre to account for cross-Border imports).

Kieran Tobin is righteously indignant about “the myths and misconceptions in public discourse around alcohol, and one of them is that we are the biggest drinkers in Europe and still growing . . . We’re now in and around the European norm, around the nine litres per capita, around what southern Europeans consume . . . That’s important.”

He’s probably right about the downplaying of the general trend, perhaps less so about European norms. The line about “lies, damned lies and statistics” was never more true than in this debate – the haze of statistics based on “per capita”, or “per adult”, or “average”, or “total alcohol” consumption figures see to that. The European norm aspired to is measured in litres per adult and, by that reckoning, we have quite a way to go.

“The aim of the Strategic Task Force on Alcohol was to get to the European average of about nine litres of pure alcohol per adult,” says Dr Joe Barry. “Ours is currently at 11.2, plus 0.5 of a litre to account for cross-Border purchases. is not over by any means. What makes us worse than the others is that we have the highest percentage of teetotallers in Europe – about 20 per cent of the population, compared with around 5 to 7 per cent in southern Europe. So once you take out that 20 per cent, the per-capita consumption here would be higher . . . We also know that half of Irish drinking occasions are bingeing. As someone said this week, we don’t do moderation well in Ireland.”

There is no dearth of evidence for this. A report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction last November produced a finding that 30 per cent of 15- to 34-year-olds in Ireland reported frequent or heavy alcohol use in the last year. That compared to 18 per cent in the next highest state, Denmark. It also found that frequent or heavy young alcohol users were twice as likely to use cannabis or cocaine.

The newest guide from Lonely Planet(not noted for its prudishness) felt bound to mention our continuing “fractious” relationship with alcohol: “While there is an increasing . . . alarm at the devastation caused by alcohol to Irish society (especially to young people), drinking remains the country’s most popular social pastime, with no sign of letting up. Spend a weekend night walking around any town in the country and you’ll get a first-hand feel of the influence and effect of the booze.”

The description of Temple Bar as “Temple Barf” will resonate with anyone who has negotiated the little streets on a weekend night.

AND YET. . . Given the reluctance of public health advocates to concede that yes, the trend might be a tad rosier than they’re prepared to admit, it’s possible to feel a smidgen of sympathy for the drinks people. There are encouraging signs. Carolyn Odgers, of advertising firm Chemistry, which runs a regular zeitgeist poll, notes a strong trend towards healthier lifestyles and away from the pub, which respondents hope to maintain after the recession. Fionnuala Sheehan, of Meas, claims her organisation’s surveys are also picking up suggestions of positive change.

But Dr Fiona Weldon, clinical director at the Rutland Centre, is “not remotely cheered by this report, because our binge drinking is so high. A drop of even 7 or 8 per cent would still leave us at about 45 per cent binge drinking in the over-18s population. We are seeing a change, but the change is in the amount of younger men, aged 18 to 25, and women aged 55 plus, coming in with a much more complex dual drug diagnosis.”

Well, maybe Dr Joe Barry will concede that the trend is in the right direction? He will. Up to a point. But that doesn’t mean that he’s happy. “We are drinking less than we did nine years ago. But part of the drop in the last two years, I think, is that people have less money. And, equally, others have cut down for health reasons. Drink-driving legislation has obviously had an impact. The starting age for drinking has gone up slightly. That’s all good news – and I’m an optimist.”

But the fact is that he and others like him simply don’t trust the drinks industry not to pull a fast one. “When I see the industry reports, I think it has to be watched very carefully . . . I’ve been listening to what Kieran Tobin is saying,” Barry says. “This report is trying to put the frighteners on the Government, warning it not to touch the industry – ‘back off, leave us alone, don’t be regulating us, we employ 100,000’ . . .”

Tobin might phrase it differently, but basically that’s precisely what he says when asked what he expects from the Government. “Because it’s a regulated industry, subject to legislation, we do ask the Government for no further burden on it, no more taxes, no more regulation, no more restrictive legislation,” he says, after carefully claiming that the industry has lost 20,000 of its 100,000 jobs and noting the “importance” of the industry to Ireland in terms of exports.

This is precisely what Barry and others fear, that a “Government that has lost confidence in itself”, as he puts it, will cave in to any vested interests dangling jobs in front of it. He plainly doesn’t accept the industry’s version of its total employment figures, suggesting that they’re a “distortion” which includes every hotel job in the country. “This is about big corporations trying to make big profits, and to hell with the consequences,” he says, dripping with scepticism at the industry’s “Drink Responsibly” campaigns. “It talks about drinking responsibly, but never defines what’s ‘responsible’.”

Barry and fellow researchers have long argued that alcohol education has little or no preventive efficacy.

It’s also worth noting that soft drinks consumption volume fell by more than cider, wine or beer and that bottled water declined by nearly one-fifth, even more than spirits. In 2009, water was the biggest loser of all.