02 November 2005

Editorial - Last Thing We Need

Derry Journal

Tuesday 1st November 2005

There are aspects of Irish culture that must be confronted and, perhaps, the most worrying of these is binge drinking.Given the extent and growth of binge drinking in Ireland - and our poor record of enforcement - it would be absolute madness to introduce 24-hour licensing here.

And, yet, the North's Department of Social Development is initiating a public consultation on the issue of extended opening hours. It is intended any changes will come into effect in 2007.As one addiction expert warned recently, the Irish psyche is not equipped to handle the 24-hour availability of alcohol. We are not a Mediterranean people, and have not been socialised into the respect for alcohol those cultures have.As this expert rightly pointed out: 24-hour availability of alcohol in Northern Ireland will mean the introduction of 24-hour bingeing, not a new age of temperance and moderation.It is as if we are almost breeding young people to drink heavily from the word go.Ireland is among a number of countries with a centuries-old culture of drinking heavily in a short space of time.

In other countries, like France and Italy, drinking alcohol is spaced throughout the week and often accompanied by a meal. This means young people learn to drink in a more civilised way.It may take a generation before we can successfully change the psyche, to readjust people's thinking to appreciate that alcohol is not to be gorged: it's not for bingeing.

Indeed, given the prevailing drinking culture, extending licensing hours here are more likely to transform our town centres into something akin to Faliraki as opposed to Florence.In theory, the aims of extended opening hours are worthy - reducing crime and disorder and tackling the binge-drinking culture.In practice, however, changes may well increase crime and disorder rather than curb it - putting more pressure on police and struggling emergency services.Indeed, evidence from the US, Australia and Europe suggests longer licensing hours mean increased alcohol-related problems.A new report analysing the drinking behaviour of young people between the ages of 11 and 16 in Northern Ireland has revealed worrying trends. Drinking behaviour among young people in Northern Ireland shows that young people here start drinking as young as 11 and that many young people are drinking to dangerous levels.The report, produced by the Health Promotion Agency (HPA) in association with the Irish Temperance League (ITL), also reveals that young people are more vulnerable than adults to suffering physical, emotional and social harm from their own and other people's drinking.There are also strong links between high risk drinking and unsafe sexual behaviour, unintended pregnancy, traffic and other accidents, failure at school and mental health problems.

Responsibility for reducing underage drinking lies with parents, schools, the government, the drinks industry and our communities and requires a 'joined-up' approach.Family relationships, in particular, cannot be underestimated as a key factor in young people's drinking behaviour and parents need to take responsibility for communicating with their children and setting an example.

We should never overlook the startling fact that, each year in Northern Ireland, around 150 people die from diseases directly linked to alcohol misuse and a further 650 die because of diseases or injuries related to alcohol.The social cost of alcohol misuse in Northern Ireland is estimated to be £700 million and now there is recognition that the increasing phenomenon of binge drinking is a major contributor to these human and financial costs.Research has also revealed that 48% of all men and 16% of women in Ireland binge drink at least once a week. Ireland is the highest of all European countries in terms of binge drinking. In Britain, the percentage of men who binge drink is 40%, while in France it is 9%.Northern Ireland has already seen a marked increase in binge drinking - with all its associated problems - in the past few years and longer opening hours is the last thing we need.

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