Due to our high levels of alcohol consumption in Ireland, most people under-estimate the amount of alcohol consumption that constitutes binge drinking. Binge drinking, or heavy episodic drinking, is where a large amount of alcohol is consumed in a short space of time.
While there is no “safe” level of alcohol consumption, drinking a lot of alcohol in a short space of time or drinking to get drunk can lead to a much greater risk of health problems and also put people, both the individual drinking and those around them, in immediate danger.
Binge drinking is defined by health experts, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), as six or more standard drinks in one session, which is the equivalent of three or more pints of beer or six or more pub measures of spirits.
Ireland has particularly high levels of binge drinking and this can make it difficult for people to recognise it as harmful behaviour, as drinking to excess has been effectively normalised here. If it seems like a lot of people are doing it, it can make it appear more acceptable or even safe, despite the damage it causes.
We have the second highest rate of binge drinking in the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and this was confirmed by the Healthy Ireland (2015) survey, which found that drinking to excess is common with almost 4 in 10 (39%) drinkers engaging in binge drinking on a typical drinking occasion and a quarter of them doing so at least once a week. The National Alcohol Diary Survey, carried out by the HRB, found that 75% of the alcohol consumed in Ireland in 2013 was done so through binge drinking.
The National Alcohol Diary Survey also found that people typically underestimate their alcohol intake by about 60%. This situation has been made more problematic by the large shift in recent years from purchasing and drinking in the on-trade (pubs) to purchasing alcohol in the off-trade (e.g. supermarkets), which now accounts for the majority of alcohol sales in Ireland, and consuming it at home.
The amount of drinks and the size of poured glasses of wine or spirits can be very difficult to keep track of at home. For example, a bottle of wine typically contains at least eight standard drinks, but may take far less than eight glasses to finish, when large glass sizes and home pours are accounted for.
Binge drinking and getting drunk do not just pose a greater threat to our physical and mental health in the short and long-term, they also impact our judgement and decision-making.
Drunkenness is closely associated with suicide and self-harm in Ireland. Alcohol is a factor in half of all suicides and is involved in over a third of cases of deliberate self-harm, peaking around weekends and public holidays, when people typically drink the most.
Binge drinking also makes us more likely to take risks, which can lead to accidents, fights and injuries, and more vulnerable to being exploited by others too. Therefore, this type of drinking behaviour is particularly harmful to those around the drinker, as well as the individual drinking, and creates a huge burden of alcohol harm for Irish society.