Irish take a sober look at binge-drinking habits

It's often viewed as an unfortunate national stereotype: The Irish like to drink and their drinking sometimes gets out of hand.

But now some worry that stereotype may be all too true. Between February 2002 and August 2003, there were 118,000 alcohol-related criminal offenses in Ireland - an average of 215 a day.

Irish police began collecting this data upon the creation of Operation Encounter, which increases scrutiny of pubs, nightclubs, and late-night fast-food restaurants. Police began the operation after public outrage over alcohol-fueled violence.

But because Ireland has about 13,000 outlets for alcohol - pubs, clubs, and liquor stores - the police have had their hands full. Between 1996 and 2000, Irish street violence increased by 97 percent. The police say that alcohol was the main factor in this rise.

The problem, police and doctors say, lies with excessive binge drinking. As recent studies show, the Irish love a weekend bender more than any other nation in the European Union. "Binge drinking here is done with intensity and an almost fury," says Dr. Stephen Rowen, the Boston-born director of the Rutland Centre, a Dublin alcohol treatment facility.

According to a 2002 study that compared Irish drinking habits to an already completed study on Finland, Sweden, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, the Irish consume an average of 12.1 liters of pure alcohol a year. Britain was the only country that came close - with 10.1 liters - but Ireland more than doubled the average consumption of the other nations, which scored 4.9 liters per person.

"This is very serious," says Dr. Ann Hope, coauthor of the study and Ireland's national policy adviser at the Department of Health and Children. "We are only beginning to see the consequences now. Alcohol-related mortality, alcohol poisoning, and cirrhosis are all up."

Another survey published by the EU last December ranked Ireland first in number of drinks a day and number of binges.

The reasons for such alcoholic extremities are not easy to pinpoint. The "Irish drinking culture" is actually a new phenomenon. Both Dr. Hope and Dr. Rowen say that 40 years ago, Ireland's overall consumption was among the lowest in Europe - due to a poor economy and a huge bulk of the population moving abroad for employment. With the Celtic Tiger economic boom in the 1990s, Hope says, many Irish in their 20s returned to Ireland for well-paying jobs. "Now that we have money, we blow it on alcohol."

Joy, a lawyer in Dublin, usually hits the pubs on Friday nights and admits to being a binge drinker, while at the same time criticizing how extreme it has become. "We work hard and play hard in this country," she says. "But the Irish attitude to drinking is so stupid. People find it acceptable to go out and get completely sloshed."

Medical experts believe that rising consumption figures parallel the increasing number of violent crimes. During the EU's economic upturn from 1989 to 1999, alcohol consumption per capita in Ireland increased 41 percent, while 10 EU nations showed a decrease and the remaining three countries each showed an increase of less than 10 percent, according to Ireland's Department of Health.

"We are really in trouble with out-of-control behavior and a lot of it is due to alcohol consumption," Rowen says. "When consumption goes up, alcohol-related violence goes up."

The police agree. Last April, Joe Dirwan, president of the Association of Garda (Police) Sergeants and Inspectors, called the binge drinking and violence figures "horrific." "It would appear," he said, "that our experiment with more lenient licensing laws has been a disaster."

In August 2003, the Irish government amended its Intoxicating Liquor Act, setting stronger penalties for bars that sell to already drunk customers.

Nevertheless, a recent radio news program reported that 1 in 3 Irish males has resorted to violence while drunk.

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