- 02 Mar 15
New restrictions in relation to alcohol misuse are misguided and wrong, because they fail to even attempt to give young people the means to take control of their own health and well-being…
The last month or so has seen a welter of broadsides on the subject of alcohol regulation from the public health episcopacy. Missives came thick and fast, all advocating draconian controls and arguing that these are needed to save us from our base instincts. Some derided Government inaction on one hand, while their authors posed as kindly but concerned uncles on the other. They regard proposed controls as just a step in a longer process of making alcohol a rare treat for a select few.
It’s gas. While temperance has been advocated by the righteous since the early 19th century, historically there was much greater focus on sexuality in Ireland. Indeed, for seven generations Ireland was as close to a Wahhabi State as a western country could be as regards sexuality, while excessive alcohol consumption was both tolerated and accepted as an excuse for almost anything.
But now? Jasus, just open a paper or news site. Sex is everywhere and nobody bats an eyelid. Well, that’s not exactly true. But it takes something really outré for anyone to notice like, say, what you might hear in a sensational court case. I’m not just talking about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, though he’s part of this rich tapestry.
And movies? What might once have been considered porn is now quite normal. The release of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie has prompted debate about how tame it is, about bondage and domination/submission fixations and female desire. That’s over and above what was triggered by the book itself.
Elsewhere, there are very explicit advice columns (and we in Hog Towers have no problems with this!) TV3, to name but one, runs one series after another about what young people should know about sex techniques, with live models.
Then, apparently, there are programmes on dogging and swinging and jasus knows what else. As for the internet, porn is a major component of overall internet commerce and is largely uncontrolled.
In sum, sex is everywhere and in everything. People let it all hang out, here there and everywhere. There’s no shock in any of it any more. We’ve seen and heard it all, more or less.
At least in part that’s because there are far fewer priests around in 2015 than in the 1930s – but that’s not to say there’s a shortage of moral crusaders. There isn’t and they haven’t given up on the desire to control our behaviour for (what they see as) our own good. The thing is, they’ve largely given up on sex and turned to drink!
Alcohol is the new sex, drinking is the new sin – and public health experts are the new mullahs! It’s true! The meeja report their ex cathedra statements with the same reverence and obsequiousness as they once reported the ruminations of bishops.
Why is this important? And might they have a point? If so, shouldn’t we all sign up to their crusade?
Okay, without question there are serious drug and alcohol problems in Ireland as well as elsewhere, especially in historically Protestant countries. And it is entirely right that these should be of concern. But policy directions really should derive from proper, thorough analysis of the issue. If you believe that excessive alcohol consumption is an illness and alcohol is, effectively, a viral infective agent and shops, pubs and advertising are the vectors for an epidemic, then you choose the kind of measures we are hearing about now.
On the other hand, if you regard alcohol abuse as a behaviour and as particular to identifiable groups – and if you also believe that people can change their behaviours – then you will choose a much more targeted approach.
In 2015 students are the subject of particular concern over their drinking, and rightly so. The health bishops focus on supply-side explanations (cheap alcohol and promotions) and advocate clampdowns accordingly. But they make no reference to the tectonic changes that are occurring for young people of which two in particular have to be factored in: first, there is the huge increase in participation in higher education; and secondly there is the extension, for very many, of dependency deep into adulthood.
A German friend pointed out that this was all much more cut and dried than a generation ago and added that a lot of people now arrive in higher education having been schooled in single sex schools and/or with weaknesses in their personal esteem and confidence. Eager to belong, they don’t know how to set boundaries and can wind up doing, well, stupid things.
The health bishops propose controls, that is, regulations that remove choice and responsibility from people. Psychologists tend to disagree, arguing that it is essential to build self-agency and belief: that is, that young people must establish control over their own lives.
There’s a paper by Dr Dominic Conroy from the University of Sussex published in the latest edition of the British Journal of Health Psychology. He found that university students were more likely to reduce their overall drinking levels if they focused on the benefits of abstaining – for example, more money and better health. They were also less likely to binge drink if they had imagined strategies for how non-drinking might be achieved – for example, being direct but polite when declining a drink, or choosing to spend time with supportive friends.
According to Conroy, his research indicates that health campaigns need to be targeted and easy to fit into daily life, but also help support people to accomplish changes in behaviour that might sometimes involve ‘going against the grain’, such as periodically not drinking even when in the company of other people who are drinking.
See the difference in emphasis?
But this cuts no ice with the dominant group with the levers of population health in their mitts. They only talk among themselves – and other disciplines and expertise are only entertained if they are in agreement. It’s the George Bush mantra: if you are not totally with me you are totally against me.
They’re wrong about that and they’re leading us down the wrong track. And that’s why they should, indeed, be resisted.