We need to call time on our attitude towards drinking

IT’S Wednesday night and we’re around the kitchen table. Unusually for a week night, some friends are over, the craic is good, and the wine is flowing.

From the Irish Examiner

There is plenty of tut-tutting, as we talk of “young people” and this new neknomination online drinking craze. “Let me just fill up your glass,” I say intermittently throughout the evening, giving my best Mrs Doyle impression of “g’wan, g’wan, ya will, ya will, don’t insult me now”.

Even though we are amongst good friends there is always that fear of not appearing hospitable enough, or, horror of horrors, being thought of as tight with the alcohol. There are so many “rules” around drinking in Ireland, most that we simply instinctively take on board as we grow up in our alcohol sodden society. For instance the perceived rudeness of refusing a drink in someone’s house ”” it doesn’t matter if you are driving, or even perhaps pregnant (just a small one, go on) or that you’re on antibiotics, sure everyone knows that’s only an ould wives tale. Drink up!

This week we’re worked up about neknomination. Haven’t bloody Facebook some cheek refusing to take down the pages promoting the game? The deaths of two young people last weekend is indeed a desperate tragedy and you can only feel heartbroken for their families. But our reaction is sadly predictable.

It’s the usual case of let’s discuss everyone else’s drinking, bar your own. Far too many Irish parents will fail to see the irony of warning their kids off things like neknomination, before they themselves proceed down the pub to get wasted on a Friday night with friends. Whether it’s a wedding, christenings or funerals there is a social obligation among the Irish to get “wasted”. The next morning we all feel we must boast about the massiveness of the hangover: “I’m destroyed from the drink. I was up ’til six, long after the bride and groom, until the resident’s bar finally shut. I so need a cure after this fry up”.

Neknomination is a worldwide phenomenon. It too shall pass into the annals of the world wide web, but what will stay in Ireland is our destructive drinking culture. The tragedy is that while the Taoiseach and other senior politicians have spoken out this week in criticism of this particular social media craze, they never speak the real truth about our societal addiction to alcohol.

The risk is too high. It’s safe territory to condemn what “the youth” are getting up to online, but you risk being seen as a total killjoy, if you were to try and point out how seriously irresponsible a majority of Irish people are about drink.

Things were looking good with the appointment of Labour junior minister Roisin Shortall to the Department of Health in 2011. She rather fearlessly took up the mantle of attempting to tackle the drink issue, but she resigned and was subsequently replaced by Labour party colleague Alex White.

But the new junior minister realised pretty fast that his ministerial colleagues were all for tackling the “alcohol problem” just as long as he didn’t want to interfere with anything in their own particular area. It should be noted that our senior politicians come under (and are open to) sustained and co-ordinated pressure from the drinks industry each time there is a chance that action might be taken on a particular area, such as sponsorship of sport by the drinks sector.

The industry is incredibly well connected, has remarkable access to what is going on behind the scenes at Government level, and does not hesitate to use it’s clout.

The politicians experience it at every level from the sponsorship of their local sports teams by drinks companies, to the number of people employed by the industry in their constituencies. There are similarities here with the hardball tactics employed by the tobacco industry, the difference being that is it socially and politically acceptable to be against smoking, but our relationship with alcohol is far more complicated.

The job of trying to wean us off our national alcohol habit was taken by White in September 2012. White’s a realist, and managed to bring a number of his colleagues around somewhat, concerning the recommendations of the really excellent 2012 report on alcohol abuse produced by the National Substance Misuse Steering Group. That group made a number of recommendations, most contentions among them that the “drinks industry sponsorship of sport and other large public events in Ireland should be phased out through legislation by 2016”. It also said there should be no increase in sponsorship in the intervening time.

White did not want to scare the horses with too ambitious a sponsorship timetable. He was happy to have discussions about pushing it out further, just to ensure there was agreement in principle, and a date specified. Even Minister for Sport Leo Varadkar looked like he might have been talked around. He had argued there should be no ban without alternative funding for sport bodies. Following a rather arduous period of persuasion White circulated a memo to Cabinet last May seeking a ban which would be limited to major sporting events, and would not apply to local sporting or arts and cultural events. The proposal was for a ban from 2020, with new contracts outlawed from 2016. It could hardly be described as ambitious, but perhaps realistic, given our attitude to alcohol and the ongoing recession. But at least it was a beginning. Cue a further onslaught of lobbying from the powerful drinks industry, using might and mane to attempt to dissuade the Coalition, up to the highest level, from such a ban. And what do you know ”” it was a success.

The Government did decide on a new alcohol policy last October, but the main plank of it was minimum pricing. The question of banning sponsorship was farmed out to yet another group, this time a working group, who are to report within a year. It would appear it was the Department of the Taoiseach that took the reins here, and advocated yet another “kick to touch” approach.

Minimum pricing is a powerful approach to the problem but there have been some concerns that the proposal may fall foul of EU competition law. Interesting the next stage in the long running legal battle over minimum pricing of alcohol in Scotland is taking place this week at Edinburgh’s Court of Session “inner house”. It is hearing an appeal from the Scotch Whisky Association on the issue. The lower court there had held that there was not an incompatibility with EU law on minimum pricing for alcohol and such efforts were justified on the grounds of the protection of the life and health of humans. An upholding of the original judgement would obviously be a clear boost to official efforts to get people to cut back on their drinking habits both there and here.

However there is an element of tinkering around the edges with this. It will, of course, have positive effects, but as we already know it is culture which beats strategy every time. So ourselves being honest about our own drinking, and our politicians taking the lead, along with our sports stars, and our pop stars and anyone else with influence, would be a powerful way forward. Otherwise the “g’wan, g’wan, ya will, ya will, ya wimp” approach, whether we’re at home, or out socialising, or indeed being challenged online, will always trump the one involving rules and regulations.