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Opinion: Our harmful drinking culture impacts us all – we urgently need to tackle it

A hazardous level of alcohol consumption exists across Irish society, but women and young people are showing the most alarming trends.

Martin Davoren

A University College Cork study on hazardous alcohol consumption and third-level students published in the BMJ Open medical journal today, 30 January 2015, has found a high prevalence of hazardous alcohol consumption (66.4%) among the 2,275 undergraduates who responded compared to the general population. Of particular note was a narrowing gender gap – with patterns of hazardous alcohol consumption now similar in men and women (65.2% for men and 67.3% for women). The possibility of adverse consequences increased drastically in tandem with hazardous consumption. 

Below, lead researcher on the study and PhD candidate Martin Davoren explains why we as a nation need to face up to our unsavoury relationship with alcohol and why he feels there is a need for public policy measures as a matter of urgency to counter the short and long-term risks to student health.

I HAVE MANY memories of aunts and uncles reminding me that ‘school days are the best days of your life’. The trend continued when I went off to university, where my older siblings advised that I ‘make the most of my time in college’.

As I made my way through my four years, the pressure to socialise and conform to a drinking culture was at times relentless. For instance in my final year, cries of ‘this is the last year of Tuesday nights’ and ‘we should make the most of our last year, who knows where we’ll be next year?’ were common and sounded curiously familiar to the pleas of earlier times. Our ingrained culture of unhealthy alcohol consumption in Ireland goes hand in hand with socialising, leading us to drink more and this is not just the case for students or young adults, who are all too often unfairly painted as the only section of Irish society engaging in such behaviour.

Young Irish adults drink more than any other portion of the population

University is a time when many students move out of home for the first time. The excitement of independence can often be coupled with a pressure to conform. The SLAN 2007 report (Survey of Lifestyles, Attitudes & Nutrition in Ireland) has noted that young Irish adults drink more than any other portion of the population. In particular, university students report elevated levels of alcohol consumption. UCC senior management recognised the need to reduce alcohol related harm amongst its students and developed a campus wide health promoting initiative several years ago.

These efforts have seen UCC become a national leader on an issue which impacts across Irish society, winning the Best Public Health Initiative category and the overall award for its work around alcohol at the Irish Healthcare Awards in 2013. However, they were not on their own. Student leadership also championed the move along with several other internal and external stakeholders, such as the Gardaí and local residents’ associations, identifying the risks associated with harmful patterns of alcohol use, and taking practical measures to keep our students safe when they are out at night and reduce the impact on the wider community.

I joined the initiative at UCC tasked with producing reliable data on patterns of alcohol consumption in the student population. Ireland’s most recent comprehensive report on student alcohol was a decade ago.

Women are now drinking as much as men – but they have more susceptibility to alcohol’s harmful effects

When published, the College Lifestyle and Attitudinal National Survey noted males were drinking more than their female counterparts. However, recent international research is observing women drinking as much as men.

As part of this, I conducted a study looking at the drinking habits of 2,275 undergraduates. It had an in-class response rate of 84%, a figure comparable to those achieved in other major international studies on student alcohol consumption. This study found an elevated level of consumption among students who responded compared to the general population. One of the most noteworthy points from the research is the narrowing of the gender gap. Patterns of hazardous alcohol consumption among students are now similar in men and women.

A key finding of the study was that 66.4% of responding students reported hazardous alcohol consumption. When we look at males and females separately, this was reported among 65.2% of men and 67.3% of women. This is worrying when we consider women have increased innate susceptibility to the harmful effects of alcohol. At the higher end of the scale, some students were consuming more than six units of alcohol at least four times per week, and in some cases on a daily basis. Ireland’s culture of alcohol consumption perpetuates this as a norm in our society; this pattern is not unique to students in UCC.

This high level of consumption brings with it a number of secondhand effects on student well-being, spilling into their academic and personal lives. We observed that this elevated level of alcohol misuse leads students to incur physical violence, unintended and unprotected sex and lost days at university due to hangover. This offset of increased alcohol consumption leads to reduced academic achievement, personal problems and student attrition among university students.

We need minimum pricing and a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports events

Currently the Irish state is at a decision point with regard to policies on the promotion and marketing of alcohol. Our study highlights the need for effective public policy measures.

Often when the topical issue of tackling Ireland’s relationship with alcohol rears its head, the emphasis on the role of education can be overstated; education has been shown to be ineffective in comparison to tackling price and marketing when attempting to reduce consumption, and should only be seen as one tool in the arsenal – not the solution.

The study findings have led us to again call for what has been urged by many across Irish society for some time: a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports events and the introduction of minimum unit pricing.

A Public Health Alcohol Bill is imminent. Prior to the Bill’s official publication, some media reports have highlighted that a ban on alcohol industry sponsorship of sporting events may not go ahead. But without support at the highest levels for evidence-based policy, attempts to tackle Ireland’s hazardous relationship with alcohol may well prove futile.

Martin Davoren is a PhD candidate and was lead researcher on this study. 

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Martin Davoren

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