Ireland faces sobering issue of rising alcohol abuse


DUBLIN, Ireland - Despite its famous brands of whiskey and stout and its thousands of pubs, Ireland's relationship with alcohol is not as historic or indulgent as the stereotypical hard-drinking Irishman might suggest.

Until recently, Ireland's per capita alcohol consumption was far behind that of countries where a drink is part of the daily routine, such as a glass of wine in France, Italy or Greece.

But over the past few decades, the Irish have surpassed their European counterparts with astonishing speed.

Annual consumption per Irish adult rose gradually to 15.8 quarts of pure alcohol in 2000 from 4.2 quarts in 1960. The European Union average is about 9.5 quarts.

As a result, alcohol-related social problems are widespread.

Irish companies collectively lose more than $1 billion each year because of hung-over employees calling in sick.

Side effects such as car accidents and medical care cost the Irish economy another $1.5 billion.

The government has made numerous efforts to curtail extreme alcohol consumption. The police have begun enforcing a law that allows them to close a pub for one week if they catch it serving anyone younger than 18.

More than 100 pubs have been temporarily shut. And some politicians have suggested a ban on drinking at government functions.

But it is harder to change the perception that drinking is a necessary part of the Irish culture.

"The Irish have a name for it, big time," said Paul Stewart, a 42-year-old plumber, over an after-work glass of whiskey at Slattery's pub here. "It's a part of the culture."

Health Minister Michael Martin has said he wants to ban advertising and sponsorship of sporting events by alcohol companies next year.

The state advertising regulator pulled a Guinness commercial from television last week because it promoted what was deemed an inappropriate link between athletic success and drinking.

The Gaelic Athletic Association, which manages the national sports of hurling and Gaelic football, is under pressure to abandon its deal with Guinness.

The message could take a while to sink in. Terry Keeley, a 55-year-old maintenance worker who was at Slattery's pub with Stewart, said he started drinking when he was 12 and does not mind seeing his teen-age daughters drink alcohol.

"The family that drinks together stays together," he said.

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