Pubs could help solve Ireland’s drink problem

"In trying to regulate alcohol more, pubs do have a role to play": Karen Cleary, Marie McCann, Sinéad and Crevan Dormer at the Wild Boar pub in Stepaside, Co Dublin.Photograph: Aidan Crawley

STRANGE AS it may seem, the growing clamour for action over the abuse of alcohol could yet prove the saviour of the Irish pub.

While Government action to tackle alcohol abuse seems closer than ever, the form this action is likely to take will probably favour pubs over other parts of the drink sector. For the first time, there is some common ground between health advocates and publicans, who both want to see curbs on the way drink is sold, often at bargain prices, in supermarkets, convenience shops and other off-licences.

The National Substance Misuse Strategy , published this month, recognised the “important role” the pub plays in community life and as an attraction for tourists. Never before have the devastating effects of alcohol misuse in Ireland been laid out so comprehensively in an official document, yet the report is noticeably softer on pubs than it is on other parts of the drinks industry.

Pubs “may” provide a more controlled environment for the consumption of alcohol, the report states, before going on to focus on “particular concerns” over the increased availability in supermarkets and other mixed-trade outlets.

This message is music to the ears of publicans, who claim there are solid health arguments for favouring their premises over other environments where alcohol is sold.

“The report is not saying the same things about pubs as similar reports were 10 years ago,” says Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland. He says his 4,500 members in country pubs fully support the report’s recommendations on minimum pricing for alcohol, the segregation of drink from other products in supermarkets and new rules against irresponsible promotions.

“The report recognises, as publicans do, that alcohol is not a product like cornflakes. It can have a negative effect on society but the pub is still the safest and most regulated place in which to consume it,” says Cribben.

“The vintners should be happy with many of the recommendations we’ve made, because their effect, if implemented, will be to push people back into pubs,” Tony Geoghegan, chief executive of Merchant’s Quay Ireland and a member of the steering group, says.

“In trying to regulate alcohol more, pubs do have a role to play. It’s about responsible serving and responsible attitudes to drink.”

“The real difficulty,” says Dr Joe Barry, head of the department of public health at Trinity College Centre for Health Sciences and another member of the steering group, “is cheap drink in supermarkets. It appeals particularly to young people and those dependent on alcohol. Because drink in a pub is dearer, you’ll do yourself less damage there for the same amount of money spent.”

There is a limit to this common ground between publicans and the health lobby. Other recommendations in the report, such as a ban on drinks sponsorship and the introduction of a social responsibility levy, are anathema to publicans, just as they are to the rest of the drinks industry.

The report sets out the dark side of Ireland’s relationship with drink in gory detail. Consumption increased three-fold between 1960 and 2001, although it has dropped slightly since then. We drink an average of 14.3 litres of alcohol a year, equivalent to 125 bottles of wine each or 482 pints of beer. Since one in five people abstain, the rest of us are drinking even greater amounts.

In international terms, Ireland ranks 10th out of 40 western countries but we top the tables for heavy drinking. One in seven 14-year-olds drink on a weekly basis and one in three have been drunk at some stage in their short lives.

In 2007, the overall cost of alcohol-related harm – from health costs, crime, road incidents, work absence and accidents, suicides and premature death – was estimated at €3.7 billion.

Alcohol is responsible for about 90 deaths a month, is a contributory factor in half of all suicides and increases the risk of more than 60 medical conditions. Each night, it is associated with 2,000 beds being occupied in the health system, one-quarter of injuries presenting to emergency departments and half of attendances to addiction treatment centres.

The trend towards home drinking is linked to the increase in consumption because the alcohol is cheaper, says Barry, and also because we tend to pay less attention to the quantity consumed when we’re doing the pouring ourselves.

It took the steering group, chaired by chief medical officer Tony Holohan, more than two years to complete the report. That period was marked by heavy lobbying of the group and disagreements that resulted in the two drinks industry members filing dissenting reports.

The political reception accorded the report has been cooler than might have been expected, given the evidence presented, with four Government ministers expressing concerns about the possible effect on employment of sponsorship and advertising restrictions. At this stage, it seems likely these restrictions are beyond the pale for the Government, although there is a far greater probability that the sale of alcohol in off-licences will be limited.

The debate around the report also shows how far things have moved on since the introduction of the smoking ban and drink-driving laws almost a decade ago.

Vintners sought a long battle against the smoking ban but Cribben says 98 per cent of his members in country pubs now don’t want it reversed. However, he pleads for a commonsense application of the rules on smoking areas, claiming the interpretation of HSE inspectors of what constitutes a smoking area is often “crazy”.

Dublin publicans in the Licensed Vintners’ Association have also put the smoking ban behind them. “This has been history for us for years. We ran a hard-out campaign against the ban before it was introduced but disengaged immediately after,” says chief executive Donall O’Keefe.

Whereas the smoking ban had a “big bang” effect on the trade, changes to the drink-driving laws have slowly tightened the screw on publicans. Road deaths have fallen over the decade as penalty points were introduced, then random breath-testing, as well as reductions in the limit of drink allowed.

It’s hard to deny the evidence of the steepest decline in road traffic deaths in the State’s history, but Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, claims, “The main reason fewer people are dying in traffic accidents is because we have safer roads. You’d have to be a fool now to crash on the motorway from Dublin to Cork or Galway or Waterford.”

While acknowledging drink-driving laws played a part in reducing fatalities, he claims the most recent legislative changes, reducing the limit from 80mg per 100ml to 50mg per 100ml last year, will save no lives on the roads.

He says it will, however, have a significant deterrent effect on low-level drinkers who would have been happy, up to now, to drink one or two pints and drive home. Others may be worried about having alcohol in their system the morning after a night in the pub.

But while tougher laws may be saving lives on the road, rural coroners have said they could be to blame for other social problems. Last year, for example, south Kerry coroner Terence Casey said the laws were creating further isolation and increasing suicide rates.

Publicans are now re-emphasising their community credentials with progressive traders helping to organise local festivals, hosting community meetings and other events and building local networks online.

Cribben says what his members most want now is a reason to be confident about the future of his pubs. That comes down to political will and leadership, he says, along with a commonsense approach to regulation.

Source: The Irish Times

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