It is a mistake to focus on alcohol in the night-time economy debate

We are potentially embedding an expectation in public’s mind of what night-time economy looks like

When we talk about the night-time economy we need to talk about what we want our nocturnal culture to look like, and that means taking the discussion beyond economics, real estate and policing.

There is a presumption in the debate that followed the publication of the Report of the Night-Time Economy Taskforce by Minister Catherine Martin in mid-September that extending the hours of selling alcohol as part of any plan will inevitably increase alcohol consumption and all that might bring with it.

Availability of alcohol is certainly one of the many contributing factors to Ireland’s alcohol issue. However, the more obstinate ones, that linger despite legislation and regulation, are our cultural and social norms, and they need to be considered in any debate about the night-time economy.

Why is it that the go-to position is to view things – hospitality, leisure, sport, youth – through an alcohol lens?

These social and cultural norms are what makes it acceptable, indeed expected, to have alcohol on hand at every gathering from Christenings to Christmas. It’s the norm that props up underage drinking. And that is also evident in how alcohol is seen as a way to cope, to celebrate, to commiserate and, essentially, be part of our social DNA.

This culture is why restricting the availability of alcohol does not necessarily reduce consumption – as the Holy Hour and the Good Friday ban showed.

Conversely, we should not assume extending availability will increase consumption. Yet this is a well-used line we see and hear in the media when this topic is discussed.

Why is it that the go-to position is to view things – hospitality, leisure, sport, youth – through an alcohol lens? Is there a danger that the sometimes sensationalist reporting might facilitate excessive consumption by normalising it?

Choices

It’s not just the media coverage that presumes that given an option where alcohol is available people will make “bad choices”.

When it comes to choices, the influencing factors are numerous, and to overcome this our brains like to fast- track decisions. Cultural and societal norms, habits, biases and especially defaults, dominate our decision-making. So by focusing on alcohol in the night-time economy debate we are potentially fuelling and embedding a narrative and expectation in the public’s mind of what a night-time economy looks like.

We risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where the presentation of alcohol misuse as inevitable allows such alcohol misuse to, perversely, become more acceptable. The reporting of such alcohol misuse rather than combating it normalises it.

If we’re going to presume this is what will happen, then surely it would be prudent to take steps to avoid it? The viability and sustainability of a night-time economy is dependent on the attraction and safety of the environment.

A positive night-time environment needs plenty of choices, from what to do, to what to drink, to where to go. The sociability of a society should not be alcohol dependent, but rather needs a good range of activity and venue choices.

We need co-operation across the business and public communities to actively shape a night-time culture that is vibrant for all

Restrictions can be helpful but constricting the options for those who want to drink may be counter-productive.

As a society we and our legislators need to create a night-time strategy that actively encourages people down a healthier behaviour path. It’s increasingly evident that there are many people who want to make better choices and behave in a healthier way, and this should be reflected in any nocturnal governance and planning.

To create sustained and sustainable positive social behaviour around the night-time economy we need to educate the public on what that looks like. It needs to be at scale and to include highly visible messaging that is accessible and informative, that engages, resonates and is not dictatorial.

Reminders

We need plenty of in-situ nudges and reminders that reinforces the message and enables and encourages healthier behaviour. We need co-operation across the business and public communities to actively shape a night-time culture that is vibrant for all, inclusive of those who want it to be less alcohol-centred, and safe for those at risk of slipping into alcohol misuse.

Widespread understanding of what misuse looks like is the catalyst to delivering this, and its absence the main obstacle. Vast swathes of Irish society share a vision of an Ireland with a healthier attitude to alcohol. To achieve this goal we need to put presumptions and prejudices aside and pull together to make it happen.

When it comes to alcohol in Ireland there are many negatives, but there are also positives that indicate the potential, the appetite and the willingness to change. As we approach this crossroads the night-time economy is a prime opportunity to signpost the better path.

Sheena Horgan is CEO of Drinkaware, a charity working to prevent and reduce alcohol misuse that receives support from retailers, producers and distributors of alcohol