herald

Friday 25 April 2014

The Irish drink problem is hidden in plain sight, and it's escalating

THE acclaimed RTE television series "Love/Hate" had been praised for its brutally realistic portrayal of the violent lives and deaths of drug dealers in Ireland.

Drug-related crime and deaths are constantly highlighted in the media but the fact that the problems caused by alcohol abuse are much greater than those caused by illegal drugs is hidden in plain sight.

Alcohol consumption in Ireland is 12 litres of pure alcohol per person per year – putting Irish people among the highest consumers in the EU of 27.

Consumption doubled between 1970 and 2003, when it peaked at a record level of 14.3 litres at a time when alcohol consumption was falling in most developed countries.

Consumption fell to 11.5 litres in 2009 but increased again to 12 litres in 2012, despite a fall in overall consumer spending in that period.

The huge increase in alcohol consumption has led to a commensurate increase in alcohol-related harms to society.

The problems related to high alcohol consumption in Ireland are exacerbated by the fact that over half of Irish drinkers have a harmful pattern of drinking, usually referred to as "binge drinking".

At least four people die every day in Ireland from an alcohol related illness.

A quarter of those attending accident and emergency departments have alcohol- related injuries.

Illnesses

Alcohol-related admissions to acute hospitals doubled between 1995 and 2008.

On an average day, about 2,000 Irish hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from alcohol-related illnesses.

Most of those patients are not suffering from conditions such as liver cirrhosis, though these have almost trebled over the past 15 years.

The majority are in hospital suffering from illnesses such as coronary heart disease, strokes and cancers to which their alcohol consumption has contributed significantly.

Some are recovering from unsuccessful attempts to take their own lives as alcohol is a factor in half of all suicides.

The burden of alcohol- related illness is a major cost to an already overburdened health care system.

In a study for the HSE Costs to Society of Problem Alcohol Use in Ireland, I estimated that the overall cost to Irish society of problem alcohol use is approximately €3.7bn.

Of this total, the largest component, €1.3bn is the cost to the health care system.

If the damage to individual drinkers and to society is to be reduced, overall consumption of alcohol must be reduced through taxation policies, minimum pricing and controls on marketing.

But for the individual problem drinker, treatment for people with alcohol dependence would be very effective in reducing the cost of problem alcohol use to society.

Health

At present only 10pc of people with alcohol dependence in Europe receive treatment.

Yet a study of attitudes to alcohol usage in Ireland supported by pharmaceutical company, Lundbeck, and the Reduce Your Alcohol Use campaign showed that heavy drinkers are aware of the dangers to their health of their drinking and that almost a third of heavy drinkers wish to cut down.

An encouraging finding of the study on attitudes to alcohol in Ireland is that 82 per cent of all drinkers would be comfortable discussing their drinking with their GP.

GPs have a vital role to play in helping problem drinkers reduce their consumption.

GPs can best help their patients whose drinking poses a risk to their health, by helping them reduce their consumption to safe levels rather than offering them only the daunting solution of total abstinence.

Sean Byrne is a Lecturer in Economics at DIT

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