THERE ARE A few basic things we humans need for life including oxygen, water, food and shelter.
In the absence of famine and drought in our little green land, the majority have everything they ‘need’. But it is in our nature too to have wants and though these are not essential to maintain life, they are an integral part of what we are.
Those things we most want and desire the most, are the things that make our lives easier, happier and more fulfilling. While big comfortable cars, luxurious homes, foreign holidays and time saving devices fall into this category, so too does alcohol, illicit drugs and tobacco. None are absolutely necessary but are instead, desirable for a whole host of personal reasons.
The practice of satisfying our wants and desires is now referred to as ‘lifestyle’. In the great debate about alcohol abuse in this country, it is referred to as a ‘lifestyle drug’. Alcohol itself is as old as man and is simply a colourless volatile flammable liquid which is the intoxicating constituent of wine, beer, spirits and other drinks. Sitting untouched in a bottle, it is harmless unless you knock over the bottle and cut yourself on the glass.
So the true question at the core of our perceived alcohol problem has to be: Why do people drink the stuff?
Unless an honest answer is found to this conundrum, the proposed price increase and banning of sports sponsorship by the drinks industry, will make no difference at all and risk making matters worse and that simple question is not even being asked. We are supposed to presume the answer.
Pure alcohol is a poisonous, it is dangerously flammable, it is a designated carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), it can make you dizzy and vomit and due to it’s ability to intoxicate, it can turn the most sensible person into a babbling idiot. It can make you ill in the short term and kill you in the long term. So what could possibly be the attraction? Why would any sane person voluntarily take a sup of it, never mind lash out hard earned money for the privilege?
Could it be the bitter burning taste of it ? Could it be the context in which it is imbibed? Could it be an aid to relaxation and easy conversation? Or it a temporary release from reality due to it’s powers to intoxicate?
Looked at in isolation and using the black and white, good or evil logic, our politicians – such as junior health minister Roisin Shorthall – are considering banning the drinks companies from sponsoring sporting events and increasing the unit price of alcohol to the public.
‘Being seen to do something’
It makes me wonder if these people really believe that such measures will make an iota of difference to the problem. It actually side-steps the core issue and is more about the politics of ‘being seen to do something’. If they succeed, it may make matters worse even as the instigators celebrate their ‘victory’.
In truth, a couple of drinks was always associated with relaxation in ones free time, in the good company of friends and with the expressed desire of loosening up a bit and chatting amicably. It was often the fuel of social interaction. It was desirable to engage in a good public house at the end of a hard day’s work, to unwind and laugh and enjoy the fun of it all. But, if you think about it, if there were no reality to escape from, drinking all day would be an empty, unpleasant experience and so, it is the contrast of the escape that seems so desirable.
We humans are full of fears, nervousness and anxieties every day. These can manifest themselves in bullying, greed, road rage and spitefulness, but social interaction with friends temporarily relieves these feelings and replaces them with happiness and contentment. As alcohol in sensible quantities appears to help induce it, it is therefore desirable for many of us. It is an aid to getting in the mood, always knowing that tomorrow will come, with it’s realities still intact. However, bans and increased pricing will never change that desire to get away from it for a while.
But the problem with alcohol stems from excess and dependancy. There is no denying the unsocial behavior, induced depression and disease that is caused. Could this be due to greater anxieties, harsher realities and a core unhappiness? I don’t know is the simple answer but the measures under discussion do not even explore these social issues.
In the case of illicit drugs, the blunt instrument of illegality is used. With tobacco, de-normalisation and creeping illegality is the blunt tool of choice, and alcohol seems now to be on the agenda for similar treatment now. Neither approach has worked with drugs or tobacco, and are highly unlikely to have any effect on alcohol either. And few of us wish to engage with our own personal difficulties one hundred per cent of the time, without a break.
So, as regards the proposals on alcohol, I can only think that, if you prescribe amputation for a headache don’t be surprised if the headache worsens.
John Mallon is a spokesman for Forest Éireann which aims to protect the interests of adults who choose to smoke tobacco.