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Our social lubricant

30 November, 1999

The drinks lobby in Ireland seems to have the same hold on public policy as the gun lobby in the USA. Paul Andrews SJ writes to raise awareness of the destructive effects of alcohol advertising.

You have noticed it yourself, I’m sure: the newspaper announces a fight, a stabbing, a fatal road accident, a domestic battering, a rape, a screaming match or other violence. And the report adds that the aggressor – or victim – had been drinking.

No need to quote particular examples here. Look at today’s paper for any such report. The language will vary, from saying bluntly that the killer car-driver was twice over the legal alcohol limit, to the milder, ‘he was just out socialising with friends’. The link between drinking and violence and death is before us every day.

Google ‘Alcohol abuse in Ireland’ on the Web, and you will get the horrible statistics of its cost to the country in sickness, hospital care, deaths, broken marriages, crimes. You read that we, with Luxemburg, head the EU League for alcohol consumption. A study of seven countries found that Ireland has the highest level of binge drinkers, with 58% of all drinking sessions involving men ending up as binge sessions and 30% for women.

The number of alcohol-related deaths continues to grow, from cancers, especially of mouth and liver; from chronic liver disease and alcohol poisoning, and suicide. Alcohol is estimated to be involved in 40% of road deaths and 37% of all drownings. The bad news goes on and on. What can we do about it?

Here is an idea for the daily papers. Every day they report several tragedies in which drinking has played a part: traffic accidents, domestic batterings, brawls, rapes, screaming matches, stabbings and other violence. Let them raise public awareness of the effects of alcohol abuse by appending a small icon to all such stories: something like this: You would find that the icon was in heavy demand, peppering the news pages with reminders of the link between this drug and stories of tragedy.

The suggestion might not please everyone. The drinks lobby in Ireland seems to have the same sort of powerful, irrational hold on public policy as the gun lobby has in the USA. No matter what shape the glass, or colour the contents, some vocal group would feel unfairly targeted. The issue is not about drinkers, of whom I am one, but about the effects of alcohol abuse.

The real target of the suggestion is public complacency about a drug problem (the number of people abusing alcohol is double that of all other drugs combined), for which the price is paid by families, the health services, the Gardaí and an ever-growing number of drink-abusers, young and old. This icon would be a simple way of signalling the damage.

Well, dear Messenger reader, I tried this on the papers some seven years ago. One journal printed my letter to the Editor, though without the icon, so robbing it of its visual impact. But you would need a concerted campaign to bring off a change like that against the weighty opposition of the big drinks companies. Last autumn, the College of Psychiatrists published an urgent appeal to the Government to ban the advertising of alcohol, backing their plea with the evidence of the tragedies which they encounter in their medical work.

The psychiatrists captured the headlines for a day.

Their target, the advertisements for drink, continued to hit our eyes and ears many times every day, even in that most unlikely of settings: the sports stadium. Alcohol has indeed a strong connection with sport. It leads to: beer bellies, lower fitness, drunken quarrels and foreshortened careers. But the other connection, the provision of money to sports clubs, persuades administrators to overlook all that damage and plaster the stadium with the names of their favourite drugs companies, the purveyors of alcohol, like Guinness, Diageo, Heineken, Jameson and so on.

Now Messenger readers are not the sort to sit self-righteously on the sidelines tut-tutting about other people’s wickedness. It is not always the good spirit that moves us to moral indignation. We have to watch ourselves before we cast the first stone. Is there any family which does not have an alcoholic uncle or aunt lurking darkly somewhere in its last three generations? Like Jesus (see Matthew Chapter 1), we have dark spots in our family tree.

Moreover, we have dark spots in our own hearts, areas of gross self-indulgence, or resentment, or intemperance. We are not castigating sinners as though we are not sinners ourselves. Rather, we are keeping alive an awareness of a national problem, alcohol abuse, which is growing rather than diminishing, and which stains the reputation of Ireland among other nations.

We are not pushing for prohibition, which never works. Alcohol is a blessed gift, which Jesus enjoyed as we do. But in Ireland, we are not handling it properly.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.