Frightening statistics: Could or should we ban alcohol altogether

In his weekly column Michael Pattwell reflects on the harmful use of alcohol and asks if it should/ could be banned.
Frightening statistics: Could or should we ban alcohol altogether

GOING COLD TURKEY: Could or should Ireland be an alcohol free zone? So asks Michael Patwell.

I READ recently that there are three deaths every day in Ireland due to alcohol consumption. According to the Health Research Board: “Between 2008 and 2013, 69% of alcohol-related deaths were due to medical causes (such as liver disease), 16% were due to poisonings and 15% traumatic causes (such as a road traffic collision). This indicates that one death per day is due to poisoning or trauma and two deaths are due to chronic conditions”.

The harmful use of alcohol is especially fatal for younger age groups and alcohol is the world’s leading risk factor for death among males aged 15 to 59, according to the World Health Organisation. In 2012, about 3.3 million deaths, or 5.9% of all global deaths, were attributable to alcohol consumption. Imagine that; up to a few years ago that was the entire population of The Republic of Ireland and interestingly in today’s population figures it is exactly one half of the entire population of this island, North and South. Harmful alcohol use is the fifth leading cause of death and disability worldwide, up from 8th in 1990, and every 10 seconds somebody dies from a problem related to alcohol and many more develop an alcohol-related disease.

I find that a frightening and deeply worrying statistic.

At this stage I had better declare that I don’t drink alcohol and I never did. I did, of course, taste it by taking a sip from various drinks somebody in my company might have ordered but I found very few that I liked and any that I did find palatable were invariably of the sweeter kind. I could, for instance, find Southern Comfort quite pleasing but any other liquor would be quite abhorrent.

Having said that I am not against anybody taking a drink. As far as I’m concerned it just wouldn’t suit my lifestyle to stand or sit around a noisy pub for several hours. Right through my life I have been busy doing other things that engaged my interest more. As far as I know all of my children take a drink and that doesn’t trouble me in the least. I can only hope they do so sensibly.

What brought all of this to mind is the report recently that a man involved in a court case had taken eight cans of beer, four pints, two gin and tonics, five vodka and lemonades, three shots of tequila and sambuca and a bottle of beer — 23 drinks in 12 hours but the person who drank them claimed that even though he was “pretty drunk” he was “still coherent” and “knew my whereabouts”. Those 23 drinks would have amounted to at least 30 units of alcohol and depending on the size of the cans of beer, possible more. If the “shots” consisted of a regular measure of both liquors then there are three more units to be added to the tally.

The Department of Health and Health Service Executive (HSE) have low-risk weekly guidelines for alcohol consumption for both men and women. They say that there is no “safe” amount of alcohol. Drinking any amount of alcohol increases the risk of damage to one’s health and that risk generally increases in line with how much one drink. Binge drinking is associated with additional health risks. 23 drinks falls well within the definition of “binge-drinking”.

Excessive drinking can lead to a wide range of medical conditions, from relatively minor issues to more serious illnesses, such as high blood pressure, liver disease, stroke, cancer and even brain damage.

For adults, the recommended low-risk limits for alcohol consumption are:

Men: 17 standard drinks spread out over the course of a week, with at least two to three alcohol-free days.

Women: 11 standard drinks spread out over the course of a week, with at least two to three alcohol-free days.

Other variables that may affect the amount of alcohol that an individual person should imbibe are:

· people with liver, kidney, or other chronic disease,

cancer risk factors,

smaller body size,

young or advanced age,

those who have experienced issues with mental health,

people who suffer from sleep disturbance,

those with alcohol or drug dependency or who have a close family member who has,

people who are taking medication that may interact with alcohol

those who suffering or recovering from an illness or accident.

People are urged to consider, in consultation with their health professionals, a different level of alcohol use, including reduction or abstention.

Furthermore, the maximum amounts allowed do not apply to those involved with activities such as operating vehicles or machinery, risky sports or other activities, or those responsible for the safety of others.

An organisation called Alcohol Action Ireland is a national charity for alcohol-related issues. They are an independent voice for advocacy and policy change, working to reduce levels of alcohol harm in Ireland and improve public health, safety and wellbeing.

They have a very useful website for anybody interested in knowing the facts about the abuse of alcohol and with their permission I shall repeat some of therm here. There is much more, however, to be learned by visiting their website, www.



88 deaths every month in Ireland are directly attributable to alcohol.

One in four deaths of young men aged 15-39 in Ireland is due to alcohol.

900 people in Ireland are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers and around 500 people die from these diseases every year.

Alcohol is a factor in half of all suicides in Ireland. Alcohol is also involved in over a third of cases of deliberate self-harm, peaking around weekends and public holidays.

Drink-driving is a factor in two fifths of all deaths on Irish roads.

Alcohol is a factor in one third of all drownings in Ireland.

Alcohol is a factor in one in four traumatic brain injuries.

Alcohol is a factor in 80% of cases of patients admitted to neurosurgery units following an assault.

Chronic alcohol-related conditions are becoming increasingly common among young age groups. Alcoholic liver disease rates are increasing rapidly in Ireland and the greatest level of increase is among 15 to 34-year-olds, who historically had the lowest rates of liver disease.

Over 14,000 people were admitted to the liver unit in St Vincent’s Hospital for the treatment of alcohol dependence in 2011.

Every day, people with alcohol-related problems occupy 1,500 beds in our hospitals.

Between 2001 and 2010, one in ten breast cancer cases were attributable to alcohol.

In 2014, one-in-three self-harm presentations were alcohol-related.

An estimated 167,170 people suffered an alcohol-related assault.

A total of 7,549 cases entered treatment in 2013 with alcohol as their main problem drug.

During the 21 years that I worked as a judge of the District Court I never got used to the stories I heard concerning the negative effects of alcohol in a huge variety of cases. It goes without saying that it was a feature in road traffic issues. It was the most frequent excuse offered for domestic violence incidents, assaults – some with grave injuries, damage to property and theft (including shop-lifting). Even more seriously it was cited in child neglect cases, failure to pay maintenance and any variety of what we called “family law” cases.

I actually came to dislike Christmas and because of what I heard in the course of my work and the effects of excess alcohol that I saw I couldn’t wait for the “season of goodwill” to pass each year. There was rarely a Christmas Day that I wasn’t called out to do a Special Court arising from an alcohol-related domestic incident.

I don’t have any answers for how to deal with it. Arising from health issues alone there is probably a good case to be made for the banning of alcohol altogether but, being a realist, I am not, of course, suggesting that could succeed. Prohibition in the U.S.A., away back in the 1920s, was a total failure (except for the irresponsible people who made millions from it) and I don’t believe it would have a snowball’s chance of succeeding now.

It has been suggested that hospital/medical treatment for alcohol-abuse related illness or injury sustained by the alcohol abuser should not be covered by insurance or social welfare benefits. That seems a very harsh way of dealing with it.

Education, it seems to me, is perhaps, the only way but I don’t mean that it should be loaded on to schools or teachers. It should be education within the home by the parents/guardians. Having regard, however, to the amount of alcohol that is flowing into homes from off-licences and supermarkets it is more likely that instead of teaching children to drink moderately and sensibly the very opposite is happening.

I don’t, unfortunately, have any realistic answer to the problem. We can only, as individuals, do the best we can to regulate our own lives.

(Contact Michael at

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