No cheery side to excessive drinking at Christmas time

 

OPINION:HOW OFTEN have you heard it said that drinking is part of our culture, part of our social norm, part of our economy? There’s reality and truth in this. You’re not a bad person if you like a drink, or for that matter if you don’t, and the Irish pub is a venue to be preserved as part of our natural heritage.

Christmas is about celebration and relaxation, and alcohol is part of the way we celebrate and relax. It’s built into many Christmas activities and events. It’s been the enabler of the craic for generations and it has on occasions fuelled good memories.

This year, the Alcohol Forum’s Christmas message doesn’t want to prevent any of that. It simply offers advice and tips on how to manage that drinking, how to stay safe and how to look out for others so that everyone can enter the new year with positive memories of the celebrations.

The Alcohol Forum is not seeking to be a party-pooper. This is the season for relaxation, spiritual rejoicing and reflection, and most of all fun. That’s how it should be, even – or particularly – in a time of hardship and economic pressure.

But Christmas can at times create isolation and anxiety, and it’s important none of us misses the person at festivities who is all alone, even in a crowded room. We need to be happy, to be caring, to be generous and to be truthful – about our own drinking and the drinking of those we love.

The last 12 months have added to the mountain of evidence on alcohol harm in Ireland.

The Alcohol Forum has shown alcohol-related brain injury to be a growing and unmeasured national health concern that may not have come to the attention of most readers.

We’ve shown that each year almost 600,000 children experience some form of harm from the behaviour of an adult drinker at home. National investigations show 20 children a month pass through emergency departments as result of alcohol consumption.

Alcohol Action Ireland has made a robust case for minimum pricing and its role in major harm reduction. The Health Research Board has reported on issues such as alcohol-related poisonings and deaths, alcohol admissions to psychiatric hospitals and alcohol presentations to HSE treatment services.

On current trends, by 2020 a further 13,000 avoidable alcohol- related deaths will have occurred and about €37 billion will have been spent just to manage the problem – not fix it or reduce it.

While human instinct makes it easy to blame others for these statistics, alcohol misuse is not someone else’s problem and as the trends continue, each of us will eventually experience a direct negative consequence of the societal acceptance of poor drinking behaviour.

Alcohol is part of every family event from cradle to grave but it is our attitudes to alcohol, to binge drinking, to finding a bargain, to partying hard and to drunkenness that dramatically shorten that journey.

Róisín Shortall, Minister of State for Health, has already made clear her intent to tackle our hazardous drinking. If she is to succeed, she will do so because each of us as individuals, as families, as neighbours and as work colleagues, got “real” about where alcohol fits and its appropriate place in our lives.

Alcohol Forum’s appeal is to make 2012 a year of personal and national action on alcohol. Let’s lose the binge and find the balance. Let’s enjoy Christmas in the kinship of family without spoiling the fun through excess.

Let’s remember that while others – particularly children – can retain horrible memories of excessive drinking by adults at Christmas, the one sure way to block the drinkers’ memories is to use alcohol hazardously. It can happen because of the desire to lift oneself out of sadness, but the end result is counter-productive. No matter how low you feel this Christmas, no amount of alcohol will truly change that feeling.

Our message this year is a simple one: stop and think. Remember that at least 21 people who get up this Christmas Day won’t be here for January 1st because of alcohol.

We can change that grim statistic without pain and suffering. Let’s make 2012 a year of personal and national action on alcohol, so that binge drinking is replaced by a balanced approach that protects future generations and reshapes our alcohol image around the world.


Eamon O’Kane is director of North West Alcohol Forum, based in Letterkenny. It is a registered charity that works to prevent and reduce alcohol-related harms in communities

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