Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Sober truth: What do we think about Northern Ireland's booze culture?

Measuring up: NHS guidelines on safe drinking aren't getting through. Posed by model
Lessons learned: Rachael Adamson
Hitting the booze: Paddy Barnes with Eireann and partner Mari

Men and women in Northern Ireland are drinking too much alcohol – but do we really care? New statistics for 2013 show that 53% of women admit to drinking more than the recommended safe limits each day. And with twice as many men drinking like this, compared to women, it seems that health warnings aren't getting through.

According to NHS guidelines, men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day, which is equivalent to a pint and a half of beer, while women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day – the same as a 175ml glass of wine. But are these guidelines a realistic aim in today's society? We speak to five well-known women and men with ages spanning three decades to find out their real attitudes to drink.

'Safe partying means not hurting yourself'

Rachael Adamson (18) from Holywood, Co Down will be heading off in three weeks time to the University of Glasgow to study English Literature and Film and TV. She was one of the guest editors in our special, week-long The Young campaign in April of this year. She says:

To us, safe drinking is more about ensuring you don't end up being sick, or don't hurt yourself when you are out. I don't really understand or think about what a unit of alcohol is and I don't think many other people do either.

It's not really how much you have drunk or keeping track of units, I see it more as how somebody is behaving physically and mentally at the time.

For a lot of people going to university, it might be their first time going out partying and they might not know their limits when it comes to drink.

But I've already been out drinking and partying for some time now. I've made my mistakes and I've learnt from them.

So I do think that I know my limits and have grown up a bit about it. I can have between 8-11 tall drinks of beer or cider, along with a few shots, but I take it easy if it's having a real effect.

What would make people of my age think about moderating their drink intake is seeing what an absolute state that some people can get into or seeing girls walking at home at night, vulnerable to anything that could happen to them as they are not in the right state of mind to look after themselves.

Obviously, for Freshers Week I'll go a bit mad, but that's just because everyone else will be getting into the spirit of things."

'We've a long history of unsafe drinking here'

Londonderry feminist Cara Park (35) is an artist, performer and broadcaster and caused a stir when she wore a revealing dress while addressing an International Women's Day event at Stormont last March. She says:

I would consider myself to be quite a moderate drinker now. Compared to most of my friends and contemporaries, I barely drink, but according to this study, I would over-drink as I wouldn't just have one glass of wine, I would have two or three when I'm drinking.

I would have a glass of wine with my lunch and definitely would drink more at home with friends, as I think most people do.

But there's a real culture here of getting p*****. Binge drinking goes across all levels of society and ages in Northern Ireland.

I was at a wedding recently and just had a soda water and the grief you get from people is unreal. It's almost like people take it as an affront or insult to them if you are not drinking.

As men are more likely to binge drink, and to drink more often during the week, I would wonder if that goes in hand with the fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men between 18 and 29.

Drunks are so boring as well, they are so repetitive. I think if many people actually saw themselves drunk, they probably wouldn't drink again.

Over the years, I have changed how I drink, mainly because of hangovers, not because of bad behaviour or anything like that.

I prefer not to drink so much as it makes me feel 10 years older now.

There's also a history in my family where grandparents and other family members have suffered from alcoholism, so it's something that I've been aware that I need to keep an eye on.

I have seen at close quarters what drink can do to people."

'It's all right as long as it's not all the time'

Leesa Harker (36), is a playwright, theatre producer and creator of drink-swigging character Maggie Muff in her hit book and play 50 Shades of Red, White and Blue. She lives in Belfast with her daughters, Lola (6) and Lexie (4). She says:

Maggie Muff wouldn't be too worried about any health advice. She's a good-time girl, she loves to drink, loves going out and doesn't want the party to end. She would be up for drinking all night and wouldn't be at all sensible.

I rarely drink now and only when I go out, which is seldom after having two children.

I wouldn't be one to drink in the house but I think people are drinking more at home as it's so dear to drink in bars and nightclubs as it's £8 for a cocktail. When I was younger, it was all about the Saturday night out as I wouldn't have drunk much during the week.

There would have been a lot of drink taken on the one night, which isn't good as that's classed as binge drinking now.

No matter what is said or the health advice given, it's not going to stop people doing that.

I'm aware about not drinking more than one glass of wine a day but I would never do that myself – I only drink socially.

Now four glasses of wine is classed as binge drinking and from what I can make out, this is worse on you than one glass a day. But where's the fun in that? You can't have a Saturday night if you can't sit and have a bottle of wine with your meal and then a few cocktails.

I know that's binge drinking, but I think it's totally acceptable as long as you are not doing it all the time. There are so many other worse things you could be doing than having a night out."

50 Shades of Red, White and Blue is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast from August 25-30. For details, www.goh.co.uk

'I'm more creative now since quitting alcohol'

Jazz and blues singer Kaz Hawkins (41) is from east Belfast where she will be performing tonight at the EastSide Arts Festival with her band. She has three adult children and is known as Nu-nu Kaz to her two grandchildren. She says:

Back in the past, I had a problem with drinking, as I used to abuse whiskey and wine. There was a time where I wouldn't have gone on stage without having a few. With the music and entertainment industry, you're just in that type of environment where it's easy to drink.

I've stopped drinking now for the last four or five years as I've been focusing on my career and my musical journey.

Now I plan when I want to drink, that's maybe once every six months, and that's when heading out with the girls or the guys from the band.

I would maybe drink a bottle of wine over the course of the evening. It's maybe not the best thing, but for me this works.

I've also been publicly open about previously being addicted to cocaine, and with that also came heavy drinking.

I've been clean for the last 10 years and I don't drink at home, I don't drink at gigs and most of my band members don't drink and have water on stage because we are all aware of the issues surrounding the abuse of alcohol.

I would have tried to keep up drinking with my men friends and it would have turned out to be a competition.

When you are buying rounds and drinking shorts or wine compared to men drinking pints, you may end up having two drinks by the time they had finished one pint.

Drinking also slows your brain and dulls your responses. I'm so much more creative now and reaping the benefits."

'People won't stop just because of NHS guides'

Olympic bronze medalist and double gold Commonwealth medal winner Paddy Barnes (27), and his partner Mari Burns live in north Belfast and are parents to three-month-old Eireann. He says:

Whoever made these guidelines up is probably someone who has never taken a drink in their lives before.

I understand that saying men should not drink more than one-and-a-half pints of beer a day is good advice for long term health, but only if you are drinking every day.

I'll be honest about this, if you drink and are enjoying yourself, you're not going to stop because some eejit from the NHS has done a bit of research.

People who enjoy their drinking are not going to listen to all these people who say it's bad for you. Smoking is bad for you and yet everyone I know smokes. Drinking is bad for you, but I can count the number of people on my one hand that don't drink.

But what does need to be addressed is helping those people who do have a problem with drink.

I don't drink when I'm training, but when I'm not in competition, I would be drinking nearly every weekend. It's normal to want to go out and have fun with your friends. Most of us are just out enjoying ourselves.

If I wasn't into sport, I could be drinking a lot more and now my drinking is on the decrease with the arrival of the child.

I used to go out two times a week drinking and that just seemed normal to me and my friends. Drink is a major factor of enjoying yourself when you're younger. I can understand that older people don't drink as much as my age group. But the world has changed dramatically. We are living in a completely different world to them than the one they experienced at my age.

There's so much more on offer in relation to nightclubs and bars, so younger people are obviously going to out and enjoy themselves."

Know your limits ...

  • Nearly two-thirds of men and more than half of women drink more than the recommended daily drinking levels
  • Consuming 10 or more units of alcohol in one session for men and seven or more for women is classed as "binge drinking"
  • Daily limits: No more than four units a day for males and three for a female – that's the equivalent of a 175ml glass of wine
  • Weekly limits – Men drinking 21 units or less are considered to be drinking within sensible limits. Those drinking 51 units and beyond are drinking at dangerous levels
  • The sensible limit for females is 14 units a week, 36 units and above is considered dangerous

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