Challenging our drinking culture by degrees

A campaign to educate people about alcohol has met with success and a certain degree of controversy

In Ireland we tend to drink in groups and in a round which means we are drinking much faster. Photograph: Getty Images

In Ireland we tend to drink in groups and in a round which means we are drinking much faster. Photograph: Getty Images


Knowing how much you are drinking, exercising moderation, pacing yourself and an absolute no to drink driving are important seasonal messages around alcohol consumption, according to DrinkAware’s chief executive, Fionnuala Sheehan.

The chief executive of Meas (Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society) emphasises that it takes the body an hour to get rid of one standard drink, which is half a pint of lager, a 100ml glass of wine or one pub measure of spirit (35.5ml).

“The way we drink in this country is that we tend not to drink every day but in one sitting we tend to drink a lot, so the chances of having drink in your system is quite high if you’ve finished your drinking at two or three in the morning,” she says.

She says that Garda statistics show that those found to be above the legal limit for drink driving the morning after consumption of alcohol in the first nine months of the year were mostly male and under 35.

DrinkAware is currently running what Sheehan calls “time-specific, point-of-danger” radio and social media campaigns: “We want the message to go out generally because through peer pressure we can also influence the behaviour of our group or family,” she says.

The broader DrinkAware message is one of pacing, a familiar theme through television campaigns including “The Best Pace to Drink at is Your Own” and “Rethinking Your Drinking”.

“Pacing is the overriding message. We have to challenge our culture. In Ireland we tend to drink in groups and in a round which means we are drinking much faster,” says Sheehan.

She says that DrinkAware’s strategy is about “cutting into the culture and empowering people in circumstances where they feel a great deal of pressure to comply with the cultural norms”.

It is also about “giving people the information and practical strategies” where drink is involved.

Guidelines from the Department of Health now state that the weekly low-risk drinking guidelines are 17 standard drinks for men and 11 standard drinks for women.

“The idea is not to drink them all in one night,” says Sheehan.

At this time of year, when many people may have guests around or may be drinking at home, tips include pacing yourself, using a drinks pourer and familiarising yourself with what a standard drink is.

Only refill when empty
Sheehan recommends not refilling glasses before they are empty, providing food for guests and non-alcoholic alternatives as well as “not being insistent on people having more drinks or on drinking at all. It is very important to support people who choose not to drink.”

For many there is an inherent contradiction in the DrinkAware campaign being funded by members of the drinks industry such as Diageo and Heineken Ireland.

“We are totally transparent about where our funding comes from. They absolutely recognise that there are issues around alcohol misuse that lead to alcohol-related harm.

“The kind of communication that we are engaging in is vitally important to try to reduce misuse and alcohol-related harm. So it is absolutely a recognition that those issues exist and are very important to tackle,” says Sheehan.

She says the role of DrinkAware is to “engage with the public in a credible way” rather than to “preach”.

“Eight out of 10 of the adult population in Ireland drink alcohol. When we look at our particular target of 18 to 29 year olds, nine out of 10 of them drink alcohol. We are not promoting drinking, that is not our business.

“It is about recognising the reality and communicating credible messages so that they are taking on board what we are saying. A ‘Thou shalt not drink message’ isn’t going to work.”

DrinkAware was involved in controversy last month when the president of the Union of Students Ireland, Joe O’Connor, wrote to Meas withdrawing the union’s connection with the DrinkAware campaign, stating concerns over the campaign’s connection to the drinks’ industry and the promotion of Arthur’s Day.

It was an issue which was “disappointing” and a “surprise” to DrinkAware, according to Sheehan.

At odds
“The current president hasn’t sought to engage with us on this or to bring his concerns to us. The position he has put out is entirely at odds with the position of young people.

“I can say that with absolute confidence because we research on a very regular basis – what we do is informed and evaluated through research.

“The most recent research asked about DrinkAware and of his age group more than nine out of 10 were aware of it. They say it is effective without pointing the finger and that it should be used more.”

Sheehan agrees that there are cases where it is best for people not to drink at all. “We do say that for some people it is best not to drink at all and in some circumstances it is best not to drink at all.

“Our message with the Garda and the Road Safety Authority is ‘Do not drive with alcohol in your system.’

“There are certain circumstances, times, and some people, and we are clear on that – that it is best not to drink at all.”

In terms of mental health, Sheehan says: “People sometimes drink to relax and that can help stress in the short term but in the longer term it can lead to exacerbating depression and anxiety and mental health issues in overall terms, so why you drink, how much you drink and drinking alone are areas that we do draw attention to and are very important.”

Asked about the responsibility the hospitality industry has in terms of the serving of alcohol, Sheehan says the responsible serving of alcohol programme should be mandatory for serving staff in the hospitality industry and that while it is an offence to serve alcohol to someone who is drunk, the law needs to be enforced.

UCC tries to get to grips with the problem of alcohol use and misuse in students

Alcohol use and abuse among university students is one of the most significant challenges facing those involved in educating and supporting today’s students. The adverse consequences of excessive drinking among students include physical injury, damage to relationships and risk- taking behaviour, including unprotected sexual activity.

Students also experience the negative academic fallout from missing lectures and assignment deadlines with concern being expressed at the link between student drop-out rates and alcohol consumption.

Head of the student health department at UCC Dr Michael Byrne notes: “The adverse consequences of the misuse of alcohol among our students are very real, all too common and occasionally have been very serious, up to and including devastating injury and death.”

Many Irish students come to university as experienced drinkers due to their early induction into alcohol, says Dr Byrne; first- year students with poor coping skills are particularly vulnerable to developing an over-reliance on alcohol.

There is considerable work going on in UCC to try to get to grips with the problem of alcohol use and misuse in students. The issue has been identified as the number one priority of the health matters initiative which is working towards making UCC an officially recognised health-promoting university by 2014.

The college developed a comprehensive alcohol action plan in 2010 (that has since been revised) that recently won the overall award in the Irish Healthcare Awards as well as Best Public Health Initiative.

(In)effective measures
In developing the plan, Dr Byrne says, a significant amount of time was spent looking at measures that have been proven to be effective (or not) in dealing with alcohol use and misuse among student bodies internationally.

“Measures that impact on the whole student body such as limiting availability, restricting advertising and marketing, alcohol-free alternatives, substance-free housing, consistent enforcement of policy and eliminating the three-day weekend have been shown to be effective in reducing alcohol-related harm among college students.

“ At the individual level, screening and brief intervention is effective . . . interventions shown to have no effect include campaigns advising ‘just say no’ to alcohol, educational programmes not linked to other methods, advertising campaigns using guilt, shame or fear, inconsistent policies and procedures or requiring or compelling students to do alcohol education courses.”

Students and staff at UCC are provided with education and information on the many effects of the harmful use of alcohol and training in how to recognise and advise a student or colleague with alcohol-related harmful behaviour.

Over the past three years, 10,000-plus students have completed ePUB UCC, an online brief intervention tool for all incoming first-year students.

An evidence-based personalised alcohol intervention, ePUB has demonstrated significant reductions in destructive alcohol use among college students in the US.

At times of higher risk such as Fresher’s Week and Raise and Give Week (formerly Rag Week) and end-of-term exams, student patrols are out on campus to monitor the university’s zero-tolerance policy to anti-social behaviour, while there is close liaison with local gardaí and residents groups.

Ties to alcohol industry
Dr Byrne was delighted at the decision by the Union of Students of Ireland (USI) to withdraw from the campaign, citing concerns over its ties to the alcohol industry and the muted response to the Arthur’s Day celebrations.

“To have a drinks industry group sponsoring an organisation that had access to each of the campuses in Ireland for the provision of information around ‘responsible drinking’ was certainly something many professionals and practitioners who work in universities and schools with young people were concerned about,” he says.

“I have sensed for a year or two that the tide is beginning to change in our attitude towards alcohol and this was crystalised this year with the adverse publicity around Arthur’s Day.”

Drinking habits
While the drinking habits among students are still of great concern, Dr Byrne points out that UCC’s research shows that the average number of drinks its students are consuming has decreased year on year over the past three years from 25.8 per week in 2010 to 20 per week in 2013.

“My view is that this decrease has been triggered by the economic downturn but I would like to believe that our work and the active efforts of those involved in counter-measuring the drinks industry like Action Alcohol Ireland has also had an impact,” he says.

Michelle McDonagh

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