Boozy world beaters
By John Corry
Alcohol consumption in Ireland has reached dizzying levels and it is shamefully commonplace to see young people incapacitated by alcohol in public.
Ireland is now the country with one of the highest alcohol consumption levels in the world. In 2001 the average Irish person drank 12.3 liters of alcohol compared with Germany's 10.8 liters. This is especially shocking because Ireland has moved to first place from 12th place in less than five years. Being world beaters in this category is a cause of shame rather than pride for most Irish people.
The Irish people have always had a certain reputation for drinking in general. A thousand anecdotes surround the escapades of famous Irish personalities under the influence of alcohol. A famous Irish author, Flann O'Brien, was a regular imbiber in one particular Dublin pub where he copiously drank whiskey. He was once asked why he wore a velvet glove when he drank. He replied, "I swore to my mother on her deathbed that I'd never touch a glass of whiskey. That's why I wear a velvet glove."
Liberalized pub hours and licenses came into effect in the summer of 2000. Instead of closing at 11:00 p.m. in the winter, they now close at 11:30 p.m. during the week and at 12:30 a.m. on the weekends. The law that demanded pubs close between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon has now been scrapped. It was never really followed in the first place.
Legally you have to be over 18 in order to drink, but in practice most Irish teenagers have found ways to circumvent the law by the time they are 16. The effects of alcohol abuse among the younger generation are a particular worry for parents and the government. Particularly worrying is that Irish teenagers also emerge as top binge drinkers in the Europe. (Binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks in a row.) Increased prosperity, especially in the 16-to-26 age group, is one of the major factors in the large increase in alcohol consumption.
Within Ireland's youth market, the popularity of traditional drinks such as Guinness beer has fallen, and new spirit-based drinks are booming. Premixed drinks, such as "Smirnoff Ice" and "Bacardi Breezer," are more suited to a party culture. They are seen as easy to drink particularly for girls with a sweet taste and have a far more stylish image than beer.
One particular type of youth-oriented drink has caused concern: energy drinks. "Red Bull," the most famous of the energy drinks in Ireland, became the subject of some notoriety. Since its introduction here in 1995 and on the back of an aggressive marketing campaign, Red Bull's sales have grown from a few thousand cans to 24 million this year. As an energy drink containing caffeine and taurine, it gives a short-term boost to energy levels. Irish teenagers found that, when mixed with vodka, it gave a special boost.
Sarah Conroy, 25, drank Red Bull mixed with vodka as her drink of choice for over six months, but will no longer touch it. "The taste was awful, but the effect was great. I could stay drunk for hours and not get sleepy. My problem with it was Mondays. I'd be wrecked from not sleeping and couldn't work properly," she said.
The main problem with energy drinks being combined with alcohol is that people can, and usually do, drink more than their alcohol tolerance level. This enabled teenagers to lengthen their binge drinking sessions, and highly energized, inebriated teenagers have led to instances of disruptive and violent behavior.
In 2001 the Irish health department established a special unit called the Stimulant Drinks Unit. The unit was created because of the unfortunate death of an 18-year-old boy who had three cans of Red Bull the day he died. The official report of the department, however, exonerated the drinks company completely and stated that the two events were unrelated.
Health Minister Mary Hanafin said, "The problem will not start to be addressed until people — children as well as adults — raise their voices and say that it is wrong for youngsters to drink alcohol."
However disappointing it is, it appears that in some stereotypes there is a kernel of truth. The racial slur of the drunken Irishman will never dissipate while the statistics bear out the facts. Ireland consistently rates among the top one or two in European surveys of alcohol consumption. This is a worrying trend, but what is of even more concern is the rate of increase in our consumption.
Between 1989 and 1999, per capita alcohol consumption in Ireland increased by a massive 41 percent. Clearly, Ireland requires a seismic shift in attitudes toward alcohol and the first to be targeted should be the education of the 16-to-20 year age group in the dangers inherent in binge drinking.
Shukan ST: July 12, 2002
(C) All rights reserved