Ireland’s problematic relationship with alcohol is costing the country 872.75m a year according to a major report by the country’s health service, the HSE.
The health study, The Untold Story: Harms Experienced in the Irish Population due to Others Drinking, says three in five people in Ireland have a heavy drinker in their lives.
Two in five said it caused domestic problems including fear and psychological stress. One in six said it resulted in harm to children, and half of respondents said they had been harmed by a strangers’ drinking in the past 12 months. Some 23 per cent said they were harassed on the streets, and a further 19 per cent said they felt afraid to be in a public place. The report says women and children in low-income families, single parents or separated families are most vulnerable.
“more than than €873m a year”
The study took three years and looked at people from a broad range of social backgrounds. It estimates the cost of the harm, and opportunity cost, caused by drinking at more than than €873m a year as caring duties and missed work but it does not take into account the intangible costs like suffering and the lost quality of life.
The report says: “The costs estimated in this study are the tangible costs of harm to others. The survey results did not estimate the intangible cost (fear, pain, suffering, lost quality of life) of alcohol’s harm to others, but these are clearly substantial.
“Harms that are prominent throughout the report include: feeling unsafe, being harassed or insulted verbally, physical harassment, stress, having less money for household expenses, sleep disturbances, being a passenger with a drunk driver, ruined belongings and having to leave home due for safety.”
In the workplace, one-in-seven employees reported problems due to their colleague’s alcohol abuse, with the cost of taking on other people’s work ringing in at €45.86m every year.
Every year alcohol accounts for a large number of calls to police and ambulance services in Ireland, with 442,849 adults seeking assistance for someone else’s drinking problem. Every year some 250,000 look for help from Gardai and 192,854 from Ireland’s health services as a direct result of alcohol. The total cost of Garda assistance and medical treatments arising from alcohol is estimated by the report at €126.72m annually.
One of the authors of the report, Dr Ann Hope said: “Given that 3 in 5 people reported a known heavy drinker in their life, suggests the risk of harm from others’ drinking is widespread in Irish society, with some of it hidden. The fear to personal safety due to strangers’ drinking especially in public spaces can undermine a sense of community well-being and can be felt by both drinkers and nondrinker alike.”
Meanwhile a study by Cambridge University of drinking habits in wealthier countries found that just one extra glass of wine a night can shorten your life expectancy by 30 minutes.
It says drinking is as harmful as smoking, and more than five drinks a week lowers life expectancy, say researchers. The paper, published in The Lancet medical journal, says five standard 175ml glasses of wine or five pints a week is the upper safe limit – about 100g of alcohol, or 12.5 units in total.
More than that raises the risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm (a ruptured artery in the chest), heart failure and death.
The risks for a 40-year-old of drinking over the recommended daily limit were comparable to smoking, said one leading scientist.
“Above two units a day, the death rates steadily climb,” said David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge.
“The paper estimates a 40- year-old drinking four units a day above the guidelines [the equivalent of drinking three glasses of wine in a night] has roughly two years’ lower life expectancy, which is around a 20th of their remaining life.
“This works out at about an hour per day. So it’s as if each unit above guidelines is taking, on average, about 15 minutes of life, about the same as a cigarette. “Of course, it’s up to individuals whether they think this is worthwhile.”
The study supports the new UK recommended limits of a maximum of 14 units a week for both men and women. The same study recommended Irish weekly drinking safe limit should be 5 pints, not 8.5. Current Irish guidelines recommend a limit of 170g pure alcohol (17 standard drinks) per week for men and 110g pure alcohol (11 standard drinks) for women.
The study included data from nearly 600,000 current drinkers included in 83 studies carried out in 19 countries. About half the participants reported drinking more than 100g per week, and 8.4% drank more than 350g per week.
Early deaths rose when more than 100g per week, which is five to six glasses of wine or pints of beer, was consumed.
A 40-year-old who drank up to twice that amount (100 to 200g) cut their life expectancy by six months. Between 200g and 350g a week, they lost one to two years of life, and those who drank more than 350g a week shortened their lives by four to five years.
Tim Chico, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Sheffield, said smokers lost on average 10 years of life.
“However, we think from previous evidence that it is likely that people drinking a lot more than 43 units are likely to lose even more life expectancy, and I would not be surprised if the heaviest drinkers lost as many years of life as a smoker.
“This study makes clear that on balance there are no health benefits from drinking alcohol, which is usually the case when things sound too good to be true.”
Prof Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the study, called it “a serious wakeup call for many countries.”
In The Lancet, Professors Jason Connor and Wayne Hall of the University of Queensland Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research in Australia said suggesting lowering recommended drinking limits meet opposition.
“The drinking levels recommended in this study will no doubt be described as implausible and impracticable by the alcohol industry and other opponents of public health warnings on alcohol. Nonetheless, the findings ought to be widely disseminated and they should provoke informed public and professional debate.”
Ireland would be among the countries that would be required to reduce limits in order to meet that standard.
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