Demon drink: greatest public health issue of our age

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Working on the front line in an addiction rehabilitation centre means that I see, first hand, the harm that substance addiction can have on individuals, families and the wider community. However, substance addiction and the problems that accompany it are not confined to the kind of programmes I work with.

From The Irish Times

Forget about the stereotypical image of skinheads in brand name hoodies as portrayed on prime-time television, substance addiction is all around us and at every socio-economic level.

In my opinion, Ireland is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Recent media reports stated more than 1,000 people have died in Ireland from alcohol-related illness in the past 12 months. We are a nation of addicts at the mercy of an ambivalent Government with a neo-liberal agenda which panders to the demands of a self-regulating drinks industry.

Policymakers ignore the fact we have a serious problem with substance abuse which ultimately poses a greater threat to the economic and social fabric of Irish life than any bank crisis or property collapse ever could.

There are 2.48 million people in Ireland who drink alcohol and 54 per cent of those drink harmfully. There were no tax increases on alcohol in this year’s budget, even though pricing is widely identified as an effective means of reducing use. The Public Health Alcohol Bill, announced in October 2013, aims only at reducing consumption and falls short of addressing the social factors behind alcohol abuse.

As one might expect, Irish teenagers are more likely to be heavy drinkers than teenagers in other EU countries. We are failing our young people by not responding to the normalisation of drug and alcohol misuse among teenagers.

What we need to do is invest in education programmes from a very young age and provide social experiences that do not revolve around drinking. Adults – and parents in particular – need to take the lead role. They must realise they have the power and responsibility to change the cycle of alcohol addiction by engaging in community action programmes which regulate the availability of alcohol to young people.

There is a need for a major sea change in how we view our national relationship with alcohol. We almost boast about our identity as a nation of revellers and heavy drinkers. However, while the number of drinkers in Ireland is high compared to the European average, we also have the largest number of abstainers. So, something can be done.

First, we need to look at pricing and seriously consider a minimum unit price. Second, alcohol should not be as casually available as it is.Third, we need to think about prevention rather than cure by investing in education programmes aimed at young people from primary school to Leaving Cert.

There are some, mainly in the drinks industry, who claim education about alcohol abuse simply doesn’t work. The problem is we are employing the wrong kind of education and demand far too much from it.We need an issue-based programme in our schools that aims to change the national attitude to alcohol consumption within a generation. This means we need to start young, in the early school years. It is far too late to wait until the teenage years because, by then, people are already drinking and it is not education they need but harm-reduction measures or treatment.

Alcohol-related illness costs the health service €3.7 billion a year and rising, but the Government’s response continues to be inadequate to the size of the problem. Addiction services in this country have been decimated when they have been needed most. The National Substance Misuse Strategy, formerly the National Drugs Strategy but renamed to include alcohol, was launched in February 2012 with a whisper. The Public Health Alcohol Bill still hasn’t been implemented, a year after it was announced. In the meantime, individuals, families and communities across the country are in crisis.

There needs to be some serious political will behind this issue. Politicians and policymakers need to stand up to the drinks industry and deliver policies that not only aim to reduce consumption but will also change attitudes and ultimately drinking behaviour.

Alcohol addiction in Ireland is the greatest public health issue of our age and it is time we realised that some things are just not that good for you.

Derek Byrne is the manager of an addiction recovery programme in Dublin and lectures in drug and alcohol policy