Ireland on the Wagon

This summer I took a short trip to London with my son. We toured the Imperial War Museums at Duxford and London, both big hits with the young historian. We also happened to be staying at the Park Lane Hilton; the same hotel where six months before, Cranberries frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan died after drinking too much. Unfortunately she was in the bath when she passed out.

Every fan of the Limerick siren was crushed upon hearing of her untimely passing. The Coroner’s inquest concluded her death was accidental.

A culture of drinking

Years ago, I went to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, held in the evening at the University College of Dublin. There was a long break midway through, a custom at this particular meeting. A few young men left, returning half an hour later. Turns out they had gone to a local pub for a pint, thinking it quite reasonable to finish out the meeting with a buzz on. While it is unfair to consider this representative of the entire country, the facts are indisputable; on average, alcohol consumption kills three Emerald Islanders a day.

Since 2015, the Irish Government fought to curb this national culture of drinking, and on October 3rd, 2018, the Public Health Alcohol Bill was at last signed into law. Currently, the annual per capita consumption of alcohol in Ireland is eleven liters. This new legislation aims to bring that number down to (a respectable?) nine liters per person by the year 2020.

To achieve this ambitious goal, several new measures will be implemented: cancer warnings, isolation of alcohol in grocery stores from food, and minimum pricing on the per-unit cost of alcohol. Additionally, sharp restrictions on alcohol advertising will soon be in effect.

Do governmental restrictions work?

Here in the U.S., we already have advertising restrictions on alcohol and tobacco, and these undeniably correlate with lowered consumption. For example, in 1965, 42% of U.S. adults were smokers. In 1970 tobacco advertisement restrictions were implemented, and by 2012, the number of adult smokers had plummeted to 18%. Clearly, it is possible, on an aggregate basis, to reduce consumption of tobacco and alcohol by a citizenry. We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves prematurely though.

The U.S. federal government mandates a public service admonishment to “drink responsibly,” at the end of every alcohol commercial. The problem with this PSA is obvious. When alcohol reaches the brain and nervous system, it alters judgment. By definition, this makes any responsible action less likely the more you drink. The chemical magic of blurred judgment and becalmed negative self-talk are two of the “beneficial” effects of alcohol. This furthers a reinforcing pattern of alcohol=pain relief. By the time people are desperate enough to seek help, the neural habits reinforcing alcohol use are firmly established.

The most effective way to reduce per capita alcohol consumption would be for legislators to focus on our most avid drinkers. A beer distributor told me 20% of her customers drank 80% of the beer.  Heavy drinkers are the people who suffer the most from the compounded effects of alcohol on their bodies. This minority has a disproportionately high incidence of DUI, public intoxication, medical interventions, domestic violence, suicide and depression. Bringing their consumption levels down would not only work to quickly improve the statistical picture, but also have an enormous direct improvement in their lives, and the lives of those dear to them.

A new paradigm of moderation

Although government paternalism is not the road we should trudge, we nevertheless must to come up with an effective solution. Ireland’s leadership wrestled with these dilemmas for nearly three years before finally settling on a courageous compromise. If only measures like these had been in place in time to save the beautiful and talented Dolores O’Riordan. Sigh.

So much is changing about the way we treat addiction. I am optimistic about the possibility we can have a reformation in rehab. If an entire nation can come together to help its people stop drinking, there is hope for any of us trying to stay sober.

Further reading:

Irish Times: Dolores O’Riordan drowned in hotel bath while intoxicated with alcohol, inquest told
CNN: Ireland passes ‘groundbreaking’ bill to curb excessive drinking
Irish Times: Three people die from alcohol a day in Ireland, report shows
Wikipedia: List of countries by alcohol consumption per capita
Wikipedia: List of countries by cigarette consumption per capita Sláinte! Ireland’s battle over booze

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