What’s the problem with alcohol?

John Brophy attended the recent discussion held in Waterford Institute of Technology on alcohol. He reports on the proceedings here.

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What’s the problem with alcohol? – Alcohol in Ireland was the topic for a discussion held in Waterford Institute of Technology recently. It was part of a series being organised by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in association with The Irish Times and was chaired by Irish Times Assistant Editor Fintan O’Toole.

Earlier events in the series have dealt with topics such as mental health and the treatment of older people, held at university venues in Dublin, Galway and Limerick.

The lineup consisted of Professor Joe Barry from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care in Dublin’s Trinity College, journalist and author of Wasted: A sober journey through drunken Ireland Brian O’Connell, Addiction Consellor and National Alcohol Project Director for the Irish College of General Practitioners Rolande Anderson and VFI Chief Executive Padraig Cribben.

Fintan O’Toole explained that, rather than have a formal debate, each of the panellists would answer a question, followed by comments from the 100-strong audience. Those present included several publicans and people working with alcohol problems. One lady from Limerick worked in Human Resources and had a special interest in how alcohol affects the Irish workforce.

The first question: Is there a specifically Irish problem with drink?

Joe Barry led off by saying yes, there is a far greater toleration of public drunkenness in Ireland. We drink in sessions and we have an earlier starting age, probably 14. The chief problems besides alcohol were heroin, prescribed anti-depressants and headshops.

Brian O’Connell said that unlike southern Europe we had a culture of drink without food. It was noticeable, he said, that the State was prepared to act very quickly and decisively on headshops but they didn’t see alcohol as a problem..

Padraig Cribben replied that the problem was not the use of alcohol, but its misuse. Present strategy is using a shotgun approach: what is needed is a targeted approach. Per capita consumption levels were down close to the European average. There was also a problem with the definition of binge drinking: drinking a pint before a meal and two glasses of wine with the meal, according to current definitions, was a binge.

Rolande Anderson declared there was s specific problem. We were still in denial and there was widespread ignorance about the effects of alcohol. Drinking to get drunk is a huge problem, a national issue. Indeed, he said, if we sorted the problem with drinking, it would take the pressure off Accident and Emergency Departments. There was also a problem with what he called the “Mrs Doyle” culture where people would say “Go on, Go on” – even to someone they knew had a problem.

Joe Barry admitted that the Euro-definition of a binge is ridiculous to an Irish person. But the appalling vista was that consumption levels are causing harm.

“You become an alcoholic by going through the phases,” he said.

But very soon we were on to the nitty-gritty. Several speakers had referred to alcohol as a drug but Padraig Cribben refused to call it a drug. Alcohol is a substance, a legal product that can be abused, he said and the excise rate here is three times the European average. Consumption patterns have changed; it used to be 75 per cent on-trade but now that has been reversed. Since the abolition of the Groceries Order, drink has become cheaper than water in the supermarkets and retailers are increasing the price of staples like bread to fund loss-leaders in the drinks market. The  Minister has set up a forum, a task force and given the composition and the names of those taking part, there will be no surprises. Attending it was a waste of time, he added.

Joe Barry agreed that the supermarkets had behaved disgracefully. He also attacked producers, especially Diageo. In the ensuing debate it was remarked that publicans were not represented on the Task Force.

On to the second question: Would it be any harm if we had less pubs?

Brian O’Connell thought not but he pointed at the British deregulation of a couple of years back. This, he said, had been a disaster, but the government had bottled admitting it had been a mistake. Fintan O’Toole interjected to say our drinking problem was no longer a pub problem. Everyone agreed. Rolande Anderson supported the idea that pubs were a safe environment: everyone understood the term “knacker drinking” – and it was far worse than pubs. A pub was a far better outlet than a faceless garage or supermarket. He referred to the German law on drink prices whereby the cheapest alcoholic drink must cost more than the dearest non-alcoholic one.

Third question: Should alcohol advertising be banned?

Rolande Anderson thought yes, except for specialist publications.

“I don’t think self-regulation works,” he said and he criticised the LVA for their campaign ‘have a sneaky drink’. Alcohol was being promoted as a relaxant and there were special dangers for those taking prescribed anti-depressants as well. There was also a danger in using drink as a kind of sleeping pill.

Brian O’Conell had looked at the French experience and was not convinced that a ban worked. But it needed regulation: he had seen large posters advertising cider right beside a school. There were also too many sponsorships from drink producers. Self-regulation was not working fully.

Joe Barry said that in 2002 there had been a Code drawn up by the Strategic Task Force. In 2006 the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Health had wanted an ads ban. Advertisers were way ahead of the State: the HSE can’t match producers in funding ad campaigns, worth €80 million a year.

On a show of hands, at least 80 per cent of the audience supported the idea of a curb on advertising.

Padraig Cribben supported the idea of banning ads based on price. But he said that with an international media and internet available in Ireland, a ban wouldn’t be very effective.

Local Waterford VFI Chairman John Aylward of the Wander Inn pointed out that the tobacco ban hadn’t worked. There are now more smokers than ever and a large proportion of smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes.

Joe Barry, answering a question, said that in 2004 the estimated cost of alcohol abuse was €2.7 billion. In St James’s Hospital, Dublin, one-sixth of the beds were occupied by alcohol-related illness, mostly liver complaints. He wanted no alcohol to be sold in a mixed trading environment.

So, should the age limit be raised?

Rolande Anderson said we have an epidemic of alcohol-related problems. The warnings on cigarette packets had helped to change the culture but enforcement could be problematic.

Brian O’Connell explained he had been a social drinker through his 20s but had stopped when he was 28. But his parents had never warned him that his grandfather had been a problem drinker. The Rutland Centre was seeing a new problem of chronic alcoholism among the under 20s.

Joe Barry said there was also a problem of women in their 30s who were suffering the effects of too many shots. In 1978, the ratio of male to female drinkers was six to one, but now it’s about equal.

And after two hours of intense debate, thoughts turned back to the World Cup and the stag-hunting debate (just being voted on). The concluding remarks were that it was an issue riven with hypocrisy – but it won’t go away.


   At the Pfizer Health Forum in association with The Irish Times in Waterford institute of Technology are (from left): Brian O'Connell, Joe Barry -Trinity College, Fintan O'Toole -The Irish Times, Padraig Cribben - VFI & Roland Anderson - Irish College of General Practitioners.

At the Pfizer Health Forum in association with The Irish Times in Waterford institute of Technology are (from left): Brian O’Connell, Joe Barry -Trinity College, Fintan O’Toole -The Irish Times, Padraig Cribben – VFI & Roland Anderson – Irish College of General Practitioners.

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