Comedian Bill Hicks once said that “there are essentially only two drugs that Western civilization tolerates: Caffeine from Monday to Friday to energize you enough to make you a productive member of society, and alcohol from Friday to Monday to keep you too stupid to figure out the prison that you are living in.” That, I suspect, is part of our problem.
In European countries where booze culture is less prominent, austerity measures bring people out to protest and to try to affect change. Here, no one cares as long as we can still all get smashed.
The health research board has just published a 68-page report on attitudes to alcohol in Ireland, which contained a lot of statistics and a lot of information – but only one figure surprised me. That was that 85% of Irish people believe that alcohol consumption is too high.
This country tolerates alcohol-induced antisocial behaviour that is not tolerated elsewhere (with the exception of the UK). I should be shocked to see as much blood and vomit on the ground as I do during a night out in Dublin – and would be, anywhere but Dublin. Street fights should shock us, but they don’t. Broken glasses, broken livers, broken noses – just a standard night out in Ireland.
There is something fundamentally wrong with our collective psychology when it comes to alcohol. The assumptions that you need alcohol in order to have a good time and that being drunk excuses and explains inexcusable behaviour, are rarely questioned. Even in the capital city, it’s challenging to find anywhere you can go with a friend to relax after 6 pm that does not involve a pub. And a skim through any local paper will show you that drunkenness is often invoked as an explanation for an action serious enough that its perpetrator is being called to account by a district court judge.
All of this behaviour is accepted as normal – this is why a figure as high as 85% surprised me. But when the answers of 1,020 people are taken to represent 3.4 million, and when the survey exclusively looked at adults in a culture where underage drinking remains such a serious problem, you have to be careful about how much you trust a report.
Interestingly, the majority of people questioned (58%) believe that the government is not doing enough to reduce our alcohol intake. There are things the government should be doing. Decisions on pricing and sponsorship have to be made at a national level. But to blame the government is a cowardly way out of taking responsibility. A lot of Irish people condemn our national stereotype and then go out and enforce it. Far too many people – even in their early to mid-twenties – are quick to label other people as alcoholics when their own drinking habits are already causing them social, professional and health problems. It is always easy to judge and condemn others, and much harder to take a hard, honest look at your own behaviour.
I’m glad the report has been prepared, because reports do at least get people thinking and talking. But was anyone really surprised that our alcohol intake is too high, that more young people drink outdoors than older people, or that there are high rates of drunkenness on our streets at night?
Ireland’s binge culture is embarrassing. And, as acutely demonstrated last weekend, downright dangerous. It needs to be fixed – but it won’t be fixed until the Irish people grow up sufficiently to look at their own behaviour as well as others’, and stop taking the easy option of blaming the government.
58% of the people surveyed supported a minimum price for alcohol, of which 67% said it would take a price increase of 25% before they would reduce the amount they purchase. I personally feel that underage drinking and booze culture amongst young adults are Ireland’s biggest problems – and the only way this will effectively be curbed is if alcohol is priced ou of their range.
Personally, I would sooner see alcohol and cigarettes taxed to the high heavens than see necessities like our homes and our water being charged. They are luxuries which, when abused, cost the state a lot of money. It would be a win-win situation for everybody. Being unable to afford a luxury is not a catastrophe. If people continue to smoke and drink to excess, tax revenues will increase. If high taxes dissuade people from drinking and smoking so much, the state will benefit in terms of healthcare and law enforcement savings.