Tackling alcohol abuse

Mon, Oct 28, 2013, 01:00

The Government is hastening slowly in confronting the issue of widespread alcohol abuse. Draft legislation, published last Thursday, is unlikely to take effect for 12 months. By that time, Ministers may - or may not - have dealt with the issue of sports sponsorship by the drinks industry. Their political hesitancy may reflect a reluctance to challenge the electorate in its comfort zone.

The unfortunate reality is that more than half of all Irish people engage in harmful alcohol consumption, while nearly one-third participate in weekly binge drinking. Tackling that level of abuse through higher prices and new controls is necessary. But it will not be popular with many of those affected and dissatisfaction could influence voting intentions. That reality may have encouraged the last government to cut excise duty on alcohol by 20 per cent in its 2010 budget.

You could paper ministerial offices with the number of official reports that have identified the damage caused to individuals and families through excessive drinking, with consequential costs for the health services and the economy. The failure of political nerve in asking the public to confront its demons, while bowing to pressure from sports bodies, publicans and the drinks industry is regrettable. That, however, does not diminish the personal responsibility of many adults to review their drinking habits because of the bad example being given to young people.

Legislation, of itself, will not eradicate our reputation as “the drunken Irish”. An educational programme to persuade young people that social enjoyment and celebration does not equate with being out of their heads on drink would help. A minimum pricing regime and rising costs is likely to alter existing patterns of behaviour in the short term. Across the European Union, there is a direct link between the affordability of alcohol and the amount people consume. Actions taken in Scandinavian countries have reduced consumption. Last year’s National Substance Misuse Strategy set a target to reduce Irish alcohol use by one-fifth, bringing it into line with the EU average.

If the public is serious about reducing the damage caused by alcohol, it must accept that prices will rise and access may become more restricted. This inconvenient truth will impinge on users, suppliers and sports organisations. The latter bodies have lobbied against a ban on sports sponsorship because of a loss in funding. Alcohol advertising shapes youthful perceptions and normalises its use as a means of marking success. Drinking from the cup and “getting wasted” in celebrations has become an intrinsic part of sporting culture. That will have to change. In the meantime, the Government should push ahead with a minimum pricing regime, tighter controls on advertising and an educational campaign.

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