Strict drink regulation creating nation of binge drinkers

Legislation ostensibly put in place to combat Ireland’s long-standing problems with alcohol has had an unwanted side effect.

comment1It’s no secret that this fair isle has had a troubled history with the so called demon drink. Abroad, the stereotype of the Irish has for a long time been that Ireland is a nation of unruly drunks. This stereotype has been so ingrained on the Irish psyche that most people take it as a given that the extensive regulation of alcohol consumption (no buying alcohol in shops after 10pm, no buying alcohol in bars after 2:30am, no drinking alcohol in a public place, etc.) is a necessary counter measure to our inability to control our own drinking. However, after spending time in other European countries without these strict regulations, I realise that the legislation ostensibly put in place to combat Ireland’s long standing problems with alcohol has had an unwanted side effect. It has created new problem with the way Irish people, in particular young people, relate to alcohol: binge drinking.

Race against the clock

Let me chart the average night out for most Irish youths. From the beginning there is a feeling that you are in a race against the clock. You need to get alcohol for pre-drinks before 10pm and you want to be in whatever pub/club you are going to before midnight as things will start finishing up at around 2:30am. Usually, people won’t head out that much earlier than 10pm, which gives you a very small window to consume all your drink. Why do people have to consume all their alcohol in the short window of time between getting your drink and going out into the pub/club? Because notoriously skint students wouldn’t be able to get drunk otherwise.

A six pack of beers in a shop will not cost you more than €10 in an off licence (the increasing number of craft beers aside). Those same beers in a glass, sitting in a pub, would knock you back at least €35. Most students simply can’t afford to get drunk in a pub/club and so those still wishing to inebriate themselves are forced to drink a night’s worth of alcohol in the short space of time between buying drink and heading out into town. This doesn’t mean that they drink any less. Irish youth aren’t the type to have their state of inebriation dictated to by government legislation. In fact, I would argue that not only does it cause people to drink quicker but it also causes people to drink more.

Because you are forced to buy your whole night’s worth of alcohol before you’ve tasted a drop, it is very hard to regulate your drinking according to how drunk you actually want to get. Different people respond to alcohol in different ways and even the same person could respond differently to alcohol from one day to the next depending on what they’ve been eating, how much sleep they’ve gotten or a whole host of other factors. In other countries, this is not a problem because of less regulation or more affordable pubs/clubs. You can buy one drink at a time and track how drunk you are getting and decide whether you want another drink based on that.

Young Irish people don’t have this luxury and usually end up buying more than a healthy amount of drink, for two reasons. Firstly, because a lot of young people tend to peg their drinking level to the standard of the group of their peers which, because of the pride many Irish take in their alcohol consumption, is quite high. The second reason is that most people don’t want to take the risk of buying too little and be left sober in a sea of badly dancing drunken idiots, shouting incoherently at each other. You want to be one of those drunken idiots dancing badly and shouting incoherently. Because of this, Irish youth drink more than they would if they had real control over how they consume alcohol.

European comparisons

Compare this with another European capital in a country that also has a long standing love affair with alcohol, Berlin. In this city you can go into a shop any time of the day or night, buy a beer, walk out and drink it in the streets. The bars and clubs don’t have to close so there is no mad dash to get as much partying done before the fun police declare time on your night. You can drink at your own pace because there is no government legislation speeding you along. If you were to buy a six pack of beers and drink them all in two hours, people would be genuinely concerned about you. Obviously, there are still people who take it too far (although you will notice that many of them are Irish and English tourists), like there would be in any context, but on the whole it’s quite startling how little over-the-top drunkenness you see on the streets compared to any Irish city. What is obvious walking around is that people aren’t trying to condense what should be a whole night’s activity into a few short hours of binge drinking.

I know the potential ‘health benefits’ of strictly regulating alcohol consumption isn’t the only reason that is trotted out to justify them. For instance, many pub owners can only get away with charging the prices they claim they need to charge to keep in business (perhaps rightly) because people have no other option when the off licences close. That’s a debate I won’t get into because I simply don’t know what would happen to city nightlife if the government abolished the strict regulation of drink. Perhaps some bars or clubs would find it difficult to stay in business and if that is the government’s priority than maybe the current situation is a desirable one. But if the priority of the government is create a healthy and responsible drinking culture, it will remove the heavy regulation of alcohol and stop forcing Irish youth into binge drinking.