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Just a way of surviving this brave new world

IN the dystopia described by Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World, one of the main ways the state controls its people is with a drug called Soma. The mild hallucinogen is taken by people when they finish work and always produces a positive experience. It causes no hangover and can be taken on a regular basis with no negative side effects. I mention this because it was the first thing that popped into my head upon reading about last week’s Budget.

I must admit to feeling genuine shock at discovering that the taxes on alcohol and cigarettes had not been increased. The fact that the cost of alcohol has been reduced left me wondering what on earth the Government was doing?
Here I thought of Huxley’s vision. With unemployment soaring in Ireland and people struggling to make ends meet, was the Government allowing easier access to alcohol so that people might drink away their worries?
Certainly making access to our national drug of choice at a time of great depression seems to me to be at odds with national health policy, which tells us we already drink too much and that the cost of alcohol abuse to the economy is rising all the time. The latest figures quoted by the National Documentation Centre on Drug Use, from 1993, show that the cost of alcohol abuse to the Irish economy at that time was one billion euro annually or 3% of GDP. This cost was estimated to be as a result of just one aspect of abuse, which was workers turning up in an unfit state to carry out their duties. This left them accident-prone and a danger to themselves and others. This will be less of an issue in the current climate when people don’t have jobs to turn up drunk for but it gives us a good idea of the figures we are dealing with in regard to this issue.
When I had ceased ruminating on the more conspiratorial explanations of the Government’s alcohol tax reduction, the real reason for the drop became clear.
This was simply the result of lobbying by the drinks industry, the vintners and the retail sector in general.
The average Irish pub has become a lonely place in recent times. The last time I walked into what was my local in Ennis, it was a Friday night but could have been a Tuesday. The marked difference in customer numbers shocked me in one way but in another seemed like a natural follow on from the exorbitant prices that many publicans had been charging in previous years. Certainly some of this price increase was due to Government taxation in an effort to make us drink less and actually turn up to the jobs we had but some in the pub trade had been charging prices that were nothing short of outrageous.
Now when jobs are being lost, the dole being cut and a spectre of financial ruin is stalking the land, the pubs which remain open need serious intervention to draw people back through their doors. It is this need that has led to their having a word in the ears of their powerful political friends in Leinster House regarding the taxation of alcohol. Their friends in the Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition have duly obliged and the price of booze has dropped by 12 cent for beers and ciders and 14 cent per half glass of spirits. The decrease on wine has been even greater with 60 cent being hacked off the price of a bottle of wine.
These decreases may not seem like a lot but they will have a significant effect when it comes to buying a round. Where a more significant impact may be seen is in the home consumption market. With soaring prices in pubs, a new drinking culture put down very deep roots in Ireland in recent years. This is the stay-at-home-with-a-fridge-or-cellar-crammed-with-liquor-and-drink-the-night-away trend. This has been very cost effective when compared to the alternative for many people but will have massive repercussions in years to come. This type of consumption effectively abolishes the concept of limits when it comes to imbibing one’s tipple of choice. Government guidelines regarding healthy intake are exceeded with such regularity and to such an extent as to make them seem like nothing but empty political fluff.
There is certainly a feeling now, in the aftermath of the Budget, that maybe all the Government’s talk in recent years of tackling the nation’s addiction has just been posturing. Minister Brian Lenihan explained his decision the day after the Budget in purely economic terms. He said that people were going over the border to buy their booze. This meant the country was losing out on valuable tax revenue. The horror that such a thing would be happening. All of a sudden when the country is stony broke, the issue of the population’s health is forgotten in the desperate grab for revenue. Similarly, tobacco revenue was left unchanged because, according to the minister, the high cost was increasing smuggling. I would have thought that smuggling was an issue for the gardaí but maybe I am ignorant as to the true extent of Brian Lenihan’s remit in the finance portfolio. If he is taking that wide a view of the problems in the country, then he would surely realise that his decisions will lead to extra and severe pressure on the health service, which has been decimated during his party’s time in Government.
The Irish Medical Organisation was a lonely voice in criticising the Government’s decision, saying that it would only lead to more problems such as underage drinking. The Government does not want to hear such things; it has an economy to stimulate and its appetite for public health measures has been dulled by the downturn.
Unlike Huxley’s fantasy drug, the Irishman’s Soma does have negative effects and the worse things get the more we seem to collectively turn to it for solace that will not come.


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