It is a mistake to focus on alcohol in the night economy debate
When we talk about the nightlife economy, we have to talk about what we want our nightlife culture to look like, and that means going beyond economics, real estate and law enforcement.
There is a presumption in the debate which followed the publication of the report of the Task Force on the Night Economy by Minister Catherine Martin in mid-September that the extension of hours for the sale of alcohol as part of all plan will inevitably increase the consumption of alcohol and everything that might bring with it.
The availability of alcohol is certainly one of the many contributing factors to the alcohol problem in Ireland. However, the most stubborn, which persist despite laws and regulations, are our cultural and social norms, and these must be taken into account in any discussion of the night economy.
Why is the preferred position to see things – hospitality, recreation, sport, youth – through the lens of alcohol?
These social and cultural norms are what make it acceptable, if not expected, to have alcohol on hand at every gathering, from christenings to Christmas. This is the standard that encourages underage drinking. And this is also evident in the way alcohol is viewed as a way to cope, celebrate, empathize and, essentially, be part of our social DNA.
This culture is the reason why restricting the availability of alcohol does not necessarily reduce consumption – as the holy hour and the ban on Good Friday have shown.
Conversely, we should not assume that expanding availability will increase consumption. Still, it’s a well-used line that we see and hear in the media when this topic is brought up.
Why is the preferred position to see things – hospitality, recreation, sport, youth – through the lens of alcohol? Is there a risk that sometimes sensationalist reporting facilitates excessive consumption by normalizing it?
It’s not just the media coverage that assumes that given an option where alcohol is available, people will make “bad choices”.
When it comes to choices, there are many influencing factors and to overcome this, our brains like to speed up decisions. Cultural and societal norms, habits, prejudices and above all faults dominate our decision making. So by focusing on alcohol in the nighttime economy debate, we fuel and potentially incorporate a narrative and expectation in the public mind about what a nighttime economy looks like.
We risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where portraying alcohol abuse as inevitable allows such alcohol abuse to perversely become more acceptable. Reporting such alcohol abuse rather than struggling normalizes it.
If we assume that this is what will happen, then surely it would be prudent to take steps to avoid it? The viability and sustainability of a nighttime economy depends on the attractiveness and security of the environment.
A positive nighttime environment needs a lot of choice, what to do, what to drink, where to go. The sociability of a society should not depend on alcohol, but rather requires a good range of activities and choice of places.
We need cooperation between business and public communities to actively shape a vibrant nightlife culture for all
Restrictions can be helpful, but restricting options for those who want to drink can be counterproductive.
As a society, we and our legislators need to create a nighttime strategy that actively encourages people to adopt healthier behavior. It is increasingly evident that there are a lot of people who want to make better choices and behave in a healthier way, and this should be reflected in all governance and nighttime planning.
To create sustained and lasting positive social behavior around the nighttime economy, we need to educate the public on what it looks like. It must be large-scale and include highly visible, accessible and informative, engaging, resonant and non-dictatorial messages.
We need lots of nudges and in situ reminders that reinforce the message and enable and encourage healthier behavior. We need cooperation between business and public communities to actively shape a vibrant nightlife culture for all, including those who want it to be less alcohol-centric and safe for those at risk of falling into it. alcohol abuse.
A widespread understanding of what misuse looks like is the catalyst to achieving this, and its absence the main obstacle. Large sections of Irish society share a vision of an Ireland with a healthier attitude towards alcohol. To achieve this goal, we must put aside presumptions and prejudices and come together to make it happen.
When it comes to alcohol in Ireland, there are a lot of negatives, but there are also positives that indicate potential, appetite and willingness to change. As we approach this crossroads, the night economy is a great opportunity to show us the best way.
Sheena Horgan is CEO of Drinkaware, a charity working to prevent and reduce alcohol abuse that receives support from alcohol retailers, producers and distributors