Alcohol abuse – Government shirks its responsibility

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From the Irish Examiner

The Cabinet is due today to discuss proposals to counter alcohol abuse.

There is plenty of evidence of increasing drink problems that are having serious ramifications for our society and our economy.

On any day, some 2,000 hospital beds are taken up by people with alcohol-related problems.

In addition to the health costs, there are also the problems of lost productivity, as well as criminal activity resulting from the consumption of excessive alcohol. It is reputedly costing the economy €3.7bn annually. In addition, alcohol is a contributory factor in about half of suicides in Ireland.

The previous government is rightly criticised for many of its mistakes, but it does deserve credit for addressing the tobacco culture in this country. As a result of sophisticated saturation advertising, many young women were lured into smoking tobacco.

Cigarettes were promoted with a recklessness that was designed to get people addicted to nicotine. This was grossly irresponsible, but the vile anti-social nature of smoking was eventually tackled, and there has been a distinct drop in the number of young people smoking.

Maybe smoking was possibly not as attractive to young men, because it was exposed as impairing athletic performance. But drink advertising, on the other hand, has been targeted largely at young men with the sponsorship of the most prestigious sporting events. There is no link between superior sporting performance and alcohol, so advertising suggesting otherwise is a gross distortion. The matter highlights the need for proper education in these matters. Alcohol abuse needs to be tackled with a broad long-term approach.

There were proposals to restrict the sponsorship of sporting events by drink companies, but these ran into opposition from some ministers. It is being suggested that a ban on such advertising will be delayed until 2016. In other words, the current government is not going to tackle the problem.

For the Government to defer the issue amounts to abandoning its responsibilities. It amounts to a contemptible insult to voters by treating them as gullible. We have been witnessing the same kind of mercenary recklessness in the promotion of alcohol that was previously associated with the promotion of cigarettes. A recent Health Research Board survey found 78% of people believe Government has a responsibility for introducing health measures to address excessive consumption of alcohol. People believe restricting sponsorship and increasing prices should tackle the issue. Some brands of drink are now often sold cheaper in supermarkets than publicans can buy them wholesale. Some French wine can actually be bought cheaper in Ireland than in France.

For too long, the drunk was treated as a figure of fun in our culture, rather than as the tragic figure who frequently blights not only his or her own life, but also the lives of whole families. As a result of official indifference, Ireland has the lowest conviction rate in the EU for domestic violence, which is frequently fuelled by excessive drinking.

The casual attitude adopted towards drunkenness is destructive and should be tackled without further delay.