Eoin Stynes looks at how Ireland’s cultural ties to alcohol consumption could have dire consequences and how the growing problem is being handled
“He’s fond of an auld drink”, a nod and a wink. It’s an interaction that all Irish people have had before and it’s underlying meaning is one that we understand all too clearly. It’s just another humorous response to what we all know is an all too serious issue, addiction to alcohol.
Our country’s relationship with alcohol is one that is well documented. From Guinness to Jameson to the pubs of Temple Bar, Ireland has a culture intertwined with the most intoxicating of spirits. Though this may be the case, the thought of its side effects were often left at the pub’s front door and have in some way just become part of who we are.
Continually, young Irish people – under the age of 24 – place near the top of the list of binge drinkers in the European Union with alcohol consumption through all demographics also increasing in the country in 2016, according to a 2017 report by the Central Statistics Office [CSO].
By 2016, Ireland’s per capita consumption was up to 11.64 litres of pure alcohol per person [aged 15 and older], a 4.8% increase on the 2015 total of 10.93 litres. The 2016 total is the equivalent of 41 litres of vodka, 116 bottles of wine or 445 pints of beer per person.
Furthermore, the 2014 findings from a National Alcohol Diary Survey showed that one in eight men and one in ten women were drinking their recommended weekly allowance of alcohol in one sitting.
A Healthy Ireland Survey from 2015 drew even worse conclusions and found that: “Almost 4 in 10 (39%) drinkers binge drink on a typical drinking occasion with over a fifth (24%) doing so at least once a week.”
The Survey also examined that only one in six of those drinking at harmful levels felt in the past twelve months that their drinking harmed their health, it is likely that many of those drinking in that way are unaware of the risks associated with it.
So, what are the health risks associated with heavy drinking?
Last week a study published in the public health journal The Lancet found that there is a link between the development of dementia and the consumption of alcohol. Fifty-seven thousand cases of early onset dementia – under the age of 65 – were monitored, finding that 39% of the cases were alcohol related with 18% of these people being diagnosed with “alcohol use disorders”.
“Alcohol use disorders were a major risk factor for onset of all types of dementia, and especially early-onset dementia. Thus, screening for heavy drinking should be part of regular medical care, with intervention or treatment being offered when necessary.”
The study was overseen by Dr. Michael Schwarzinger from the Translational Health Economics Network in France and he said that heavy drinking also increased the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, atrial fibrillation and heart failure which in turn could lead to vascular dementia.
“Our findings suggest that the burden of dementia attributed to alcohol use disorders is much larger than previously thought, suggesting that heavy drinking should be recognised as a major risk factor for all types of dementia”, said Schwarzinger.
As a result of studies such as Schwarzinger’s, measures and legislation are currently being discussed to find a way to deal with the rise in young people drinking alcohol and the impacts that it may have on their adult lives.
The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill was introduced to the Dáil in early February and the curtailment of advertising alcohol to young people appeared to be the main focus of the legislation. It would chiefly aim to restrict advertising during sporting events in an attempt to curb the influence that it has on younger viewers.
“During a sports event a person shall not advertise, or cause to be advertised, any alcohol product in or around a sports arena.”
Screening for heavy drinking should be part of regular medical care, with intervention or treatment being offered when necessary
“It is now well established beyond reasonable doubt that alcohol marketing does influence drink behaviour. In Ireland, [in 2016] over €50 million was spent on advertising alcohol brands alone”, said Dr Bobby Smyth, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Addiction Studies in Trinity College, in 2017.
Smyth also believes that in fighting the culture of heavy drinking in young people we could also help to battle problems associated with drug addiction also. He says that there is increasing national and international scientific evidence to prove that the earlier young people “start drinking the more likely they are to develop a significant drug or alcohol problem in adulthood”.
He believes that by first deterring young people from consuming alcohol and educating people about the dangers that it may bring, could be a way of battling not only alcohol abuse and addiction but also the ever growing problem of drug addiction in Ireland: “It’s my belief that the biggest single thing we could actually do to tackle our drug problem in Ireland would be to take steps to reduce the amount of drinking by teenagers.”
Although these levels of consumption are not the highest we have seen in the past two decades, with the HRB reporting a high of 14.3 litres consumed per capita in 2001, the numbers are currently still rising. The light at the end of the tunnel though is that people are starting to view their own drinking habits in a different light and a more open discussion surrounding addiction and mental health problems can only serve to stall this increase.