Wednesday, 9 November 2011

150% rise in teenage drinking problems: Alcoholism in Ireland hits new crisis

The Irish Independent has been critical of Minister Shortall's attempts to start a much needed debate on minimum pricing of alcohol.  "Anyone expecting minimum alcohol pricing to solve the problem of alcohol abuse overnight is likely to be disappointed.  Believe it or not, overall Irish levels of alcohol consumption, while still relatively high, have been falling since the turn of the century".  That certainly is hard to believe, particularly when the HSE has published a report this month (based on National Drug Treatment Reporting System (NDTRS) returns) which indicates the exact opposite, showing a steep rise in drinking amongst the growing number of unemployed people, and a 150% rise in the numbers of teenagers seeking help for their drinking. 

Dr Suzi Lyons, senior HRB researcher with the HSE, speaking to the Irish Examiner on Wednesday 9th November revealed that "the effects of the recession are biting hard, with a massive jump in unemployment among people seeking treatment for alcohol".  The report published by the Health Research Board found 76% of people in alcohol treatment in 2010 were out of work — up from 60% in 2005.  "This suggests that prolonged problem alcohol use may lead to loss of employment, or alternatively, the factors associated with failed treatment (or chronic addiction) are similar to those associated with failure to secure or retain employment."

Youth drinking problems up by more than 150%

But the real shock comes in the HSE figures on young people and drinking.  Reported in The Examiner on 9th November the report shows "a 150% jump in the number of juveniles seeking treatment for alcohol in the last six years - over three times the increase among all age groups".  And this, said Dr Suzi Lyons, was an "underestimate" of the true figure, as they only had data for a "fair majority", but not all, treatment centres.  The rise for other age groups is equally alarming, with a 29% increase in new cases and a 42% rise overall, and "the total number of cases increased from 5,525 in 2005 to 7,866".

The Independent is still not having it, arguing that drugs, and not alcohol, are the real problem.  The paper believes that "the fact that a fifth of all those being treated also abused other, illegal, drugs points to another possible explanation.  In modern Ireland alcohol isn't the only drug to be abused by large numbers of people. There are few people under 30 who haven't at least experimented with illegal drugs".

On the contrary, as Dr Lyons' study shows, "40% of clients were drinking daily, with a further 34% consuming alcohol two to six times a week. The majority (81%) of cases reported problem use of alcohol only".   Similarly, while fewer than 1% of drivers were stoned, over 13% were drunk at the wheel as revealed by a recent Tispol survey - seven times the European average.  Alcohol, not drugs, is the cental issue.

Alcohol industry and Government take the issue by storm

Also shocked by the findings is Katryn D’Arcy of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland, who will obviously 'be reviewing the report in detail'.  Her initial reaction as reported in the Irish Examiner is to repeat the increasingly unconvincing mantra that
"overall alcohol consumption has been declining steadily in Ireland since its peak in 2001.  Consumption declined dramatically between 2008 and 2010 and ...Irish consumption is approaching European norms". 
Is it?  The facts tell the opposite story, and this head-in-the-sand approach is not only wrong but is now proving to be positively dangerous.

The HRB report sums up very neatly what is needed to tackle the problem.  'Effective policies include: increasing the price of alcohol; restrictions on alcohol sales; minimum legal purchase age and low legal blood alcohol concentrations for drivers'.  But the government still seems unable to respond without a bit more time to ponder what it all means.  Answering questions from frustrated backbenchers on 4th November last year on the subject of rising alcoholism, Minister Aine Brady quite reasonably put the blame squarely on "The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment [who] revoked the Restrictive Practices (Groceries) Order 1987 with effect from March 2006".  And that, as part of a continuing programme of deregulation begun in 1992,  is certainly the reason why Ireland has made such steady progress from being a relatively sober country in 1990 to its current position as booze-capital of the western world. 

But that hardly explains why the government has spent 20 years avoiding a reversal of those policies and hiding behind 'reports' and'consultations' to put off any defninitive action on the issue.  Instead Ministers choose to put the whole debate on the long finger, sending the house to sleep with the same long-winded responses.  Giving an identical  response to that of Minister James Reilly this summer, Minister Brady presciently described a year ago the exact situation which still pertains today:
"A Steering Group has been established to develop proposals on the alcohol element of the  NSMS. The NSMS Steering Group is examining a wide range of issues in relation to alcohol policy such as pricing (including minimum pricing), availability, treatment, prevention and marketing. The NSMS Steering Group is due to report on its findings by the end of the year. I look forward to receiving the Report from the Steering Group and considering the recommendations around the price at which alcoholic drinks are sold. My Department is continuing to monitor developments on alcohol policy in Scotland and in Northern Ireland particularly in relation to any proposals on the pricing of alcohol products".


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