Irish drinking worsens

    My pint tonight is not as amiable as usual. It’s hard to drink when you feel as though you’re now contributing to what the Irish government calls a “”worrying”” decline in society.

    The tradition of heavy drinking in Ireland is known all over the world. The image of rustic, ruddy, jovial, friendly and very drunk old men sitting in a pub with blaring Irish music is one of the most widely recognized cultural icons. It is so popular that Irish pubs have sprung up in so many countries as to rival even McDonald’s expansion. Every pub, in its own right, is trying to simulate this idea of friendship, music and lots and lots of beer.

    As an ethical rule, it is important to take stereotypes with a grain of salt. While they often contain some truth, most of the stereotype is highly exaggerated and by adhering strictly to these exaggerations, racism is born. Ireland is no different, although much to its government’s dismay, the Irish population is beginning to make that stereotype a reality. Binge drinking is at an all-time high, prompting tough new laws to limit the power of the pub over the common Irish citizen.

    With rumors of increased drinking, a number of surveys were undertaken to measure the danger of the climb. The Western Health Board has said that alcohol consumption has increased by 50 percent over 12 years. Medical treatment ranging from liver damage to injuries from bar brawls now costs about $2.7 billion annually. Over a third of all emergency room patients suffer from alcohol-related injuries or illnesses. Per annum, every Irish citizen or resident will have an average of 11 liters of pure alcohol.

    Even more worrisome is the young age at which the Irish start drinking. Most Irish teenagers begin at age 12; one in five of these are regular drinkers. Half of all males by age 15 are regular drinkers and will be classified as alcoholics by age 21. Even young girls, with usually more restraint, have numbers only slightly lower than their male counterparts.

    Binge drinking is on the rise, as over 40 percent of adults binge drink. But the reasons for the increase are more vague.

    One of the more colorful ideas is that the Irish are forced to drink because of all the problems that beset their society: corrupt politicians, troubles in Northern Ireland, the poor Iraqis and 800 years of English oppression. However, Ireland enjoys more freedom today than it has in the past 800 years combined. Ireland has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, and with the Celtic tiger economic phenomenon still lingering, Ireland has one of the highest qualities of life in Europe. In a recent study, Dublin was rated the seventh-best city in the world to live in. What, then, is happening to Irish health?

    There are probably several reasons for this rise. One problem is the miserable health care system under the woeful leadership of Micheal Martin, the Minister for Health and Children. This week alone, there will be over 200 beds decommissioned in hospitals across the country. Mr. Martin recently told five countries that were affected by the SARS virus that they were not allowed to attend the Special Olympics this year in Ireland, despite the World Health Organization’s condemnation. With these problems already plaguing the health system, all of Mr. Martin’s attempts to “”educate”” the public about the dangerous effects of alcohol through advertisements have been weak at best.

    Related to this issue is the passage of a number of inefficient laws regulating alcohol consumption. The government legislated miles of red tape that must be cut to open a new pub. Hoping to kill two birds with one stone, leaders thought that by curbing new pub openings, they could preserve the traditional Irish pub and lessen drinking. This law is futile; less than 10 percent of Dublin pubs service the alcohol needs of over 35 percent of the Dublin population and there are already 10,000 pubs in Ireland — 800 alone in downtown Dublin.

    Most important is that Ireland has recently become prosperous after centuries of poverty, and it is possible that the Irish are not able to cope with the sudden success. Like the trend of lotto winners to immediately squander the fortune, it is possible that the Irish, now with heavier pockets, drink more because they are able to do so. Economists have criticized Ireland for the poor handling of the Celtic tiger and its enduring love of all things “”Irish.”” This criticism is to be expected from any sudden explosive economic growth, but it is based in truth. The Irish could also be mishandling the new freedoms and financial prosperity.

    New laws and taxes have closed pubs earlier and clamp down on underage drinking. An ad campaign to stop binge drinking has appeared on televisions across the country, and while largely ineffective, it is better than nothing. Regardless, the solution to Ireland’s binge drinking problem will not be found through legislation, but through education. If this doesn’t work, drinking will decrease only if the population suffers enough damage to realize the dangers of binge drinking.

    Usually, the Irish keep true to their stereotype by making any visit to the pub a grand one, both through friendliness and alcohol accessibility, but my pint isn’t sitting as well tonight. I finish and head home for a bit of teetotalling.

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