The real reason why drink crisis will persist

 

WE ARE used to politicians running scared of proposals to tackle Ireland’s lethal relationship with alcohol. But this time there is even less chance of anything getting done. This time, it’s not just fear of the industry and its lobbyists, but of the escalating number of alcohol addicts this society is producing. The last thing this Government wants is a population doing cold turkey, deprived or on a reduced supply of its drug of choice.

I hear that Róisín Shortall, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, will shortly bring the new National Substance Misuse Strategy Report to the Oireachtas health committee, and hopes to draw up a plan in two or three months. I wish her well. I spoke to her recently and detected a high degree of determination, but she will already have gathered that she is on her own. Following this week’s publication of the report of the alcohol policy steering group, several Ministers were sighted running towards the Wicklow hills.

If any other single factor was responsible for taking up one-sixth of acute hospital beds on any given night; or costing the Irish State the equivalent of our annual bailout payment, it is hard to imagine politicians not being all over it. But the alcohol problem is different. Alcohol is the phenomenon that diminishes all others – or seems to while you’re under its influence. Alcohol relaxes, sedates, relieves tension and anxiety. It is also a disinhibitor, enabling people to talk more while doing less.

During the decade of the Celtic Tiger (1996-2007) consumption of alcohol increased by 17 per cent, putting us right up there at the top of the pisshead premiership. This has left us with another timebomb: a massive latent health crisis that will erupt in a few years in the form of various cancers, cirrhosis and other physical diseases, not to mention the psychiatric dimensions. Already we observe the results in escalating violence and clogged-up AE departments at weekends. Half of Irish men and one-fifth of Irish women binge at least once a week, and 100-plus Irish people die each month as a direct result of alcohol.

During the Tiger years also, our national drinking patterns altered significantly in another respect: because of successful efforts to educate the public about the dangers of drink-driving, people started to drink (a lot) more in their homes, or afterwards (a whole lot more) in nightclubs into the dawn. It also led to immense competition between supermarkets, which drove the price of alcohol down to quite incredible levels.

Over the past decade, the real price of alcohol has dropped to less than half what it was. (Cheap supermarket drink is being subsidised by the higher cost of essentials like bread, milk and cornflakes, but nobody notices.) Still, and economic crisis notwithstanding, successive governments have refused to levy on alcohol the degree of taxation its damaging social action justifies. From a distance, these facts offer confirmation of the party that almost everyone nowadays denies ever happened. But there is a subtlety about alcohol consumption that often escapes notice: it is used as much as an analgesic as an enhancement of the enjoyment of, for example, affluence. During the Tiger years, the better-off accounted for much of the increased spending on alcohol, but the less well-off tended to spend more, in relative terms, of their incomes on alcohol.

This suggests that alcohol was used unconsciously as a way of evening out the effects of felt-inequality and ameliorating social pain. Historically, alcohol was used in this way by Irish emigrants in England and North America – to lessen feelings of estrangement and alienation by achieving a temporary annihilation of the consciousness.

One of the so-far unremarked aspects of the Celtic Tiger is that these symptoms manifested for the first time at home, with whole sections of the indigenous population seeming to fall prey to the same symptoms.

This is really why politicians don’t want to move on the national drink problem. When foreigners ask me to explain why the Irish people have not revolted against the incomprehensible and unjust burdens being placed on them, I tell them to look at the drinking statistics. Alcohol is functioning as a highly effective instrument of artificial social cohesion. It is the main reason why people are not marching in the streets or pulling the gates of Government Buildings off their hinges.

No matter what problems it stores up for the future, alcohol allows us to “get out of it” right now. The longer-term costs, for the drinker or the exchequer, are another day’s work. If this Government is to have any hope of a relatively tranquil time in implementing the wishes of our German and French partners, it is essential that the present rates of alcohol consumption be enabled to continue. Anyone who imagines that the Irish will readily surrender their cheap drink is in for a rude awakening. Ireland undrugged will never be at peace.

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