Ireland continues to fuel ‘Heavy Drinkers’ stereotype

“The number of new cases of alcohol-related cancers in Ireland is expected to double by 2020.”

This is the stark statement by the Irish Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Manager Kevin O’Hagan on the Central Statistics Office (CSO) report released on October 18th 2017. A grim picture was painted, which showed that in 2014, Irish people between the ages of 18 and 24 topped the EU table for excessively drinking alcohol.

Irish people have a reputation for being heavy drinkers. The average EU rate of alcohol consumption between people aged 18-24 is 11.7% for men and 4.3% for women. More than a quarter of Irish males (26.8%) aged 18-24 engaged in binge drinking at least once a week in 2014, which was over double the EU average. The figure for Irish women of the same age was over treble the EU average at 15.5%.

The data from the CSO report looks like this:

5.17  EU: Persons with heavy episodic drinking at least once a week, 2014
  % of cohort
Country Males   Females   Total
18-24 25-64 18+   18-24 25-64 18+   18-24 25-64 18+
Cyprus 0.5 1.6 1.4 0.4 0.1 0.1 0.4 0.8 0.7
Latvia 0.6 2.2 1.9 0.7 0.1 0.1 0.7 1.1 0.9
Lithuania 2.0 6.9 5.7 0.0 0.7 0.5 1.0 3.7 2.8
Croatia 2.3 3.4 3.3 0.0 0.8 0.6 1.2 2.0 1.9
Italy 2.9 1.8 1.8 0.7 0.4 0.4 1.8 1.1 1.1
Slovakia 3.2 2.9 2.7 0.6 0.3 0.3 1.9 1.6 1.5
Greece 3.6 2.8 2.5 0.8 0.4 0.4 2.2 1.6 1.4
Hungary 3.6 3.8 3.9 0.0 0.6 0.6 1.8 2.2 2.2
Bulgaria 4.6 4.5 4.0 0.0 0.5 0.5 2.4 2.4 2.1
Poland 5.4 6.1 5.5 2.1 0.7 0.7 3.8 3.3 2.9
Portugal 6.6 5.3 5.0 1.3 0.6 0.5 4.0 2.8 2.6
Romania 6.6 23.2 20.3 1.2 2.6 2.4 4.0 12.9 11.0
Spain 7.3 4.3 4.1 2.3 1.5 1.2 4.9 2.9 2.7
Czech Republic 10.2 3.7 4.0 0.9 0.3 0.3 5.8 2.0 2.1
Austria 10.3 3.6 3.9 4.3 0.7 1.0 7.3 2.2 2.4
EU 28 11.7 9.3 9.0 4.3 2.6 2.6 8.0 5.9 5.6
Estonia 12.0 10.9 9.8 1.4 0.9 0.8 7.4 6.4 5.4
Slovenia 12.7 5.3 5.6 4.3 1.0 1.2 8.5 3.2 3.3
Luxembourg 14.4 18.5 17.4 7.2 5.7 5.5 10.9 12.2 11.4
Sweden 14.4 6.4 6.8 7.1 1.5 2.0 10.9 4.0 4.4
Denmark 16.0 14.2 14.3 10.7 3.7 4.5 13.2 9.0 9.3
United Kingdom 17.0 17.8 15.5 6.5 6.2 4.9 11.0 11.6 9.8
Finland 19.4 21.2 18.9 10.7 4.4 4.4 14.6 12.6 11.3
Germany 22.0 12.7 13.5 8.0 4.9 5.4 15.2 8.8 9.4
Malta 25.8 10.2 11.6 11.2 2.1 2.8 18.7 6.2 7.2
Belgium 25.9 14.1 13.6 9.5 3.1 3.7 17.2 8.5 8.5
Ireland 26.8 21.2 20.8 15.5 6.5 6.8 21.4 13.8 13.7
Turkey 2.3 3.3 2.9 0.1 0.2 0.2 1.2 1.7 1.5
Iceland 4.1 3.3 3.0 6.3 0.5 1.3 5.1 1.9 2.1
Norway 8.7 3.6 3.7 5.1 0.7 1.1 7.0 2.1 2.4
Source: CSO IHS, Eurostat EHIS

“The statistics are very disappointing in that we have known for some time that alcohol consumption is the third leading risk factor for disease and mortality in Europe.” Kevin O’Hagan, the Irish Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Manager said.

According to the society’s website, alcohol is associated with seven different types of cancer: throat cancer, mouth cancer, cancer of the voice box, cancer of the oesophagus, breast cancer, liver cancer and bowel cancer.

Every year, 900 people develop cancer from excessively drinking alcohol. Of those 900, over 500 die from the disease.

Excessive drinking or ‘binge drinking’ is described by the HSE’s website as drinking more than six standard drinks in one sitting. A standard drink is a pub measure of spirits, a small glass of wine, an alcopop or a half pint of beer.

For drinkers of alcohol, the recommended weekly intake for women is 11 standard drinks and 17 standard drinks for men.

In Europe, an estimated 10% of all cancer cases in men and 3% of all cancer cases in women are attributable to alcohol consumption, according to the Irish Cancer Society.

Kevin O’Hagan highlights some of the risks associated with alcohol consumption for women.

“More than 100 studies have looked at the link between alcohol and breast cancer in women. These studies have time and time again found that drinking alcohol increases breast cancer risk.” He explained: “Evidence has shown that drinking one standard drink a day is associated with a 9% increase in the risk of a women developing breast cancer, while drinking 3 to 6 standard drinks a day increases the risk by 41%.”   

It is obvious that we have a problem in Ireland with drinking too much alcohol. As well as the CSO data, a global report from May 2014 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) put Ireland as second out of 194 WHO countries for binge drinking.

The report found that 39% of all Irish people aged 15 and over had excessively drank alcohol in the past 30 days, which put us ahead of the UK (28%) and only below Austria’s 40.5%.

Ireland has had a complex relationship with alcohol for decades. Since 1960, our levels of drinking almost trebled and are still more than double despite a near 20% drop since reaching its peak.

Alcohol 1

Alcohol consumption in Ireland almost trebled over four decades between 1960 (4.9 litres of pure alcohol per capita) and 2000 (14.1 litres of pure alcohol per capita), as alcohol became much more affordable and more widely available. Since then, our alcohol consumption has declined by 19.6%, from a peak of 14.3 litres of pure alcohol per capita in 2001, to 11.5 litres in 2016.”

These figures were obtained from Alcohol Action Ireland’s website, a national charity that aims to reduce levels of alcohol harm by trying to improve public policy and safety on the matter.

CEO of Drink Aware, Niamh Gallagher who campaigns for an Ireland without alcohol abuse is well aware of the problems associated with alcohol consumption.

“We know that regularly drinking alcohol at this level can increase the risk of experiencing alcohol-related harms, including accidents, injuries, violence, stomach disease, cancer and strokes. As well as the impact on physical health, alcohol can have a serious impact on mental health, affecting ability to cope with everyday stresses. It is also linked with particular mental health issues including depression and anxiety,” said Ms Gallagher.


The solutions to reducing alcohol intake are complex.

“We need a combination of measures; education and awareness to communicate the impact of alcohol on young people and to build the skills and resilience required to say no; and enforcement of the law, to ensure that young people under age cannot access alcohol and those who supply it to them are punished,” said Ms Gallagher. 

The Irish Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Manager, Kevin O’Hagan said: “The most important thing at the moment is to continue to increase awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer. Presenting this message is particularly challenging in the context of considerable investment by the alcohol industry on marketing and advertising to influence people’s alcohol beliefs and behaviour.”

Suzanne Costello, Interim Leader of the HSE Alcohol Programme, agreed with Mr O’ Hagan.

“Alcohol marketing is designed to make alcohol sell. A huge amount of money is invested in it and so alcohol is marketed as something that is largely risk-free. It’s glamorous and aligned with social success in how it’s marketed and hence, for young people, that makes it attractive. The key point to reducing alcohol harm with consumption is the fact that it’s very difficult to achieve because there’s a very strong industry lobby opposing those things. It’s a contested space and the public health community need to make the case and display the evidence in order to get politicians to take action to progress the legislation.”

The Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI) represents alcoholic drinks manufacturers and suppliers in Ireland. The Director of ABFI, Patricia Callan, defended the statements made by saying that the drinks industry supports measures to tackle misuse of alcohol and to reduce alcohol consumption of young people.

“The position of the drinks industry has always been to support the introduction of measures to tackle alcohol misuse and alcohol consumption by young people,” said Ms Callan.

Ms Callan also said alcohol abuse damages the drinks industry and its reputation and is not something they want.

It is not in the best interests of the drinks industry when people misuse our product. Ultimately, alcohol misuse damages our brands and our reputation,” she said. “Our industry engages in responsible marketing and promotion, and is governed by some of the strictest regulatory codes in the world.”

In December 2015, the legislation for the Public Health Bill was approved by the Irish government. The bill’s aim is to deal with minimum unit pricing of alcohol, labelling laws on alcohol, advertising laws and availability of alcohol in Ireland.

It is our hope that the new Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will introduce much stricter legislation governing alcohol advertising and sponsorship and also health labelling of alcohol products since there is widespread misunderstanding and denial of the harmful effects of alcohol on health,” said Mr O’ Hagan of The Irish Cancer Society.

Drink Aware are also supportive of the Public Health Bill. CEO Niamh Gallagher said, “We are supportive of the bill but it’s a matter of what happens next.”

The HSE Interim Leader of the Alcohol Programme, Suzanne Costello, finds this statement to be ‘contradictory’, given the fact that Drink Aware are funded by the alcohol industry.

“That’s a position that we would find contradictory because if the people that fund Drink Aware are funding the lobbyists to derail the bill, I’m not sure what exactly their position is.”

Niamh Gallagher admitted to being funded by the alcohol industry but stressed that the governance of Drink Aware is separate to the funding.

“Drink Aware does receive funding from the alcohol industry and the grocery retail industry so we’re not just funded by the alcohol industry. We receive funding from both but our governance is absolutely separate to our funding. Our Board drives our strategy and oversees our work and they have no links to the alcohol industry. They’re completely independent,” Ms Gallagher said.

The Public Health Bill is still being debated, with it moving back and forth between the Dáil and the Seanad. It is hoped that the Bill will come before the Seanad again in November of this year.

By Leanne Salmon

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