Dr Ciara Kelly: Ireland has a drink problem of collective denial
Do we care that alcohol wrecks lives – or are we just pretending?
This article by Ciara Kelly appeared in the Independent.ie, 13/08/2018.
This week Alcohol Action Ireland published its annual market review and price survey 2018 about the cost of drink in this country. Lots of us say Ireland is expensive for booze – people often cite bottles of wine on their holliers in Spain costing four quid as examples of this. But actually wine’s a bit of an anomaly because what’s cheapest here drinkwise is – cider, beer and spirits.
Anyway the main thrust of the study was, what it costs people to hit their maximum safe threshold for booze – the maximum units of alcohol we can drink before we start to cause harm – in a given week.
The maximum units of alcohol over a seven-day period is 11 units for a woman and 17 units for a man. And the bottom line was, a man can hit 17 units of alcohol for €8.50 and a woman can hit 11 for as little as €5.50. Basically we can reach the maximum recommended limits on alcohol for men or women here for less than the price of a packet of cigarettes.
Should we care? Well I asked that question on radio during the week and got very interesting responses.
Some people agreed that we are drowning in our drink culture and something needs to be done about it – and with booze that cheap, needs to be done rapidly.
Some people cried “Nanny state!”. One person tweeted that we need laws to protect us from other people and other people from us – but never laws to protect us from ourselves.
Which I can respect, except it begs the question; do we not need laws to protect us from big alcohol and the drinks industry?
But by far the most sobering response was from a listener who I spoke to on the phone who has been in recovery since January 1. This he said was after drinking increasing amounts throughout last year. He’d started drinking till he passed out and he passed out regularly until he didn’t want to live like that any more. And the last time he drank, he took steps to end his own life.
Luckily he woke up a couple of days later and realised he was relieved he had survived. He decided at that point that he needed to stop drinking. Many people have been in that boat. Not all have survived.
And many of them know long before they get to that point that they have a problem, but in a society where every single social occasion from cradle to grave revolves around alcohol, they don’t know what they can do about it. Those people are the collateral damage from our unwillingness to acknowledge or to tackle our drink culture.
Those people are the casualties along the way that we are willing to put up with losing. Just like in America they are willing to put up with losing the victims of Sandy Hook or the Parkland shootings, rather than do something about guns or alcohol in society.
And if you think I’m exaggerating, the sad truth is if we exclude suicides from both countries, the Irish are dying in proportionally greater numbers from alcohol than Americans are from gun murders. We lose three people a day to alcohol among 4.6 million people, while they lose about 50 per day through shooting in a population of 325 million.
And, the truth is, we don’t care. We may walk from darkness into light and we may stick green ribbons on our social media profiles but that is the equivalent of sending thoughts and prayers to the victims of gun violence. We don’t care about the health problems or the appalling mental health fallout from alcohol in this country. All we really care about is paying lip service to it.
So while one-in-eight women with breast cancer got it as a result of alcohol, or half of all suicides are caused by alcohol, or marriages and families continue to be destroyed by it – and we remain unmoved – that, my friends, is a drink culture. That, my friends, is collective denial.
The suicides of young Irish men is a scourge in this country. It steals the lives they should have had and it devastates their families. Alcohol is the biggest single cause.