IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

After smoking curbs, Ireland now eyes alcohol

Having led the world in banning smoking in pubs and restaurants, the Irish might now be about to tackle their legendary love affair with alcohol and, in particular, the problem of teenage binge drinking.
SMOKERS
Publican Phil Murphy, left, chats to customers as they enjoy their last cigarettes in Mick Murphy's Bar pub in Ballymore Eustace in County Kildare on Sunday.John Cogill / AP file
/ Source: Reuters

Having led the world in banning smoking in pubs and restaurants, the Irish might now be about to tackle their legendary love affair with alcohol and, in particular, the problem of teenage binge drinking.

The government has played down reports it is mulling a crackdown on booze but Health Minister Micheal Martin -- the man behind the toughest tobacco ban in the world -- appears to have alcohol abuse in his sights.

“People are worried about underage drinking, disturbances on the streets and drink leading to violence,” Martin told reporters this week after banning smoking in all Irish work places, including pubs.

“There is a consensus emerging that we have collectively to focus on this issue.”

He recalled a recent incident in Sweden, where a conference delegate challenged him to tackle alcohol abuse in Ireland --particularly binge drinking among the young.

“I had to admit we have an alcohol problem in Ireland,” Martin said. “That was in front of 300 delegates from all over Europe and that is not an image we should be happy with.”

It has long been observed that the Irish, famous for their vibrant pub culture, are among the heaviest drinkers in Europe.

But what has become apparent more recently is that alcohol consumption is growing more rapidly in Ireland than elsewhere in Europe and that it is concentrated in the young. A recent report by the European Union statistical body Eurostat found that well over 90 percent of Irish youngsters aged 15-24 had drunk alcohol in the previous 12 months -- a figure higher than anywhere else in the EU.

Young Irish women were almost as likely as their male peers to have had a drink. The disparity between the sexes was smaller than anywhere else in the 15-nation bloc.

“Dramatic” rise
While alcohol consumption has been falling in the EU over the past decade or so, it has soared in Ireland, fuelled in part by the prosperity of the “Celtic Tiger” years of the 1990s.

Between 1989 and 1999, Irish alcohol consumption jumped 41 percent -- a figure described by Martin as “dramatic.” In 10 of Ireland’s 14 EU partners, consumption fell in the same period.

By 2000, the Irish were knocking back an annual 14.2 liters of pure alcohol per capita compared to an EU average of 9.1.

A report by the British government last year found the British and Irish were the biggest binge drinkers in Europe.

Health campaigners say part of the problem is that boozing is ingrained in Irish culture, celebrated in pub songs and accepted as an essential part of “the craic” (the fun).

The likes of Northern Irish footballer George Best, playwright Brendan Behan and folk singer Shane McGowan have all reveled in drink.

“I could smoke less and I’m sure I could drink less,” Irish film star and heart-throb Colin Farrell was quoted as saying recently. “But there are girls back in Dublin who drink more in a night than I drink in a week.”

The smoking ban, hailed by lobby group ASH as “the greatest health initiative of the century,” might change Ireland’s pub culture and, if successful, could persuade the government to take action on drink too.

One Irish newspaper caused a flutter among drinkers on Thursday by claiming the government was poised to introduce swipe cards to limit them to six pints of beer per week.

The report was an April Fools’ Day hoax but many feel that tough legislation -- even if not quite that draconian -- may be just around the corner.