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Alcohol and a society in denial

Sir, – Research emerged recently that strongly points to the harmful effect that alcohol has on our brains (“Just a few drinks will damage the brain, research shows”, June 6th).

People who drank alcohol had poorer word-recall skills and greater evidence of damage to their hippocampus, a part of the brain which plays a crucial role in memory. Most worryingly, they found that there was no safe level of alcohol consumption, although the heaviest drinkers demonstrated the largest deficits. This has upset the drinks industry. It has encouraged us not to take it too seriously. This was a large, long-term and well-designed study. While the results are very inconvenient to those of us who drink, they are hard to quibble with.

It has been a difficult few years for the drinks industry. Its product was identified, yet again, as having a key role in a vast number of the cases of child abuse and neglect in a recent report by Geoffrey Shannon.

The Irish Cancer Society has been pointing out the fact that alcohol is carcinogenic.

The Rape Crisis Network recently ran a campaign outing alcohol as the date-rape drug in Ireland.

The Connecting for Life initiative on suicide prevention also has alcohol in its cross-hairs, given its intrinsic role in so many suicides.

We have long been laughed at as a nation regarding our drinking, and no generation of Irish adults has been more deserving of “the drunken Irish” caricature. We have passively watched alcohol leak progressively into earlier adolescence.

The average amount of alcohol consumed by our drinkers is about 50 per cent higher that the upper limit of our own “low-risk” drinking guidelines, with even this low-risk level being associated with cancer and now brain damage. We have a habit of deluding ourselves about our drinking, with most dependent drinkers viewing their own alcohol use as “moderate”.

Perhaps this is about to change. Two years ago, our Government indicated its landmark intention to treat alcohol as a health issue, drafting the Public Health Alcohol Bill.

Unfortunately, the drinks industry has mobilised its army of lobbyists and slowed its progress through the Dáil.

The legislation doesn’t include any earth-shattering measures. It will just make the lowest cost and strongest drinks a little less cheap. It will curtail the relentless drinks advertising and marginally reduce access. Together, they will have a modest impact of alcohol related harm in our society. The truly monumental aspect of this Bill lies in the fact that it will demonstrate to the world and ourselves that we are no longer in denial.

If child abuse, rape, suicide and cancer have not been enough to get it over the line, perhaps this new evidence on brain damage may be enough for the remaining naysayers. – Yours, etc,

Dr BOBBY SMYTH,

Senior Clinical Lecturer,

Department of Public Health

and Primary Care,

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2.