The hoary old topic of how much the Irish are slaves to the alcohol was back in the headlines here in the past few weeks. This was because of proposed new legislation from the government to outlaw the sale of cheap booze in Ireland.
What is being proposed is that there will be minimum drink pricing here to stop the sale of very cheap booze -- much of it imported from Eastern Europe and elsewhere -- mainly by supermarkets and other off license outlets.
Typically this comes in the form of trays of canned beer (slabs, they are called here), boxes of bottled beer, cheap wine and very cheap cider. The problem also includes cut price imported spirits in large size bottles.
We don't have a problem with cheap booze sold in pubs, where drinks are still relatively expensive. In fact it is the relatively high cost of alcohol in pubs in comparison with off license outlets that is part of the problem, driving drinkers with limited cash to drink at home rather than in their local bar.
And of course the smoking ban and the very low drink drive alcohol limit have added to the home drinking trend.
What this has meant in recent years is the closure of many pubs all over Ireland and a huge increase in the number of people who drink at home on a regular basis. Wine sales have soared. People of all ages and classes are part of the trend, but there is a particular problem with younger drinkers.
Typically, younger drinkers in poorer areas get a few "slabs" and congregate in waste ground areas to drink in the open. Better off kids heading out for the night to a club will have "pre-drinks" in someone's house where they will all get loaded on cheap vodka before leaving.
When eventually they get to the pub or club they will have just a few drinks, because it is so expensive. But that's enough to put them over the top.
As anyone who has been out on a weekend night in Ireland in our towns and cities will know only too well, this kind of drinking causes mayhem on the streets, with so many young people literally out of their heads.
But it's not just a problem with young drinkers. The easy availability of cheap store-bought booze (it's now in all corner convenience shops and garages as well as supermarkets) has had an effect across all age groups, particularly in poorer areas where money is tight.
To tackle the problem the Department of Health commissioned a report from a group of experts on minimum drinks pricing, and that has formed the basis of the proposed new legislation. The Minister for Health Leo Varadkar has now published the outline of the proposed Public Health (Alcohol) Bill which will introduce minimum alcohol pricing here. He hopes the full legislation will be ready by the summer and that it will be passed into law by the end of the year.
One of the problems in dealing with the issue is that some of the cheap bottles and cans now available are relatively high strength. It's the amount of alcohol in the bottle or can that is the important thing and for that reason the minimum pricing will be based on the quantity of pure alcohol it contains.
A minimum price of 70c per unit of alcohol (eight grams) has been proposed. It has also been suggested that it should be set slightly higher at 11c per alcohol gram.
This would see a bottle of wine being sold at a minimum of around €9 and a standard can of beer at over €2.20. There is research from other countries and from the World Health Organization which shows that setting a minimum price like this is effective in reducing the overall consumption of alcohol.
That would be good, of course, but there are various reasons that a lot of people here are not happy about the proposal.
The first problem is that all drinkers here, including moderate social drinkers, will be affected. It's not just the minority of excessive drinkers that will be hit. It's everyone, and that does not seem fair.
Responsible drinkers will have to pay more for the alcohol they buy in supermarkets, not just the excessive drinkers who create chaos on the streets and in Casualty departments.
We already know from data compiled on drinking habits across Irish society that the number of drinkers who are consuming alcohol at problem levels is around 20 percent of the total number of drinkers. That means that 80 percent of drinkers here do not fall into the problem category.
Another problem with the proposal is that pushing supermarket minimum prices up will allow pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels to keep on charging high prices. It's not surprising that the organization of pub owners here has already come out in favor of the proposal. And of course it suits the government because higher pricing brings in more tax revenue.
It also means that supermarkets will be likely to put up all alcohol prices to maintain the differential between the cheap stuff and the good stuff. So it will mean, for example, that wine now priced at €10 or €12 -- the most popular price level -- will become slightly more expensive.
The biggest problem with the proposal, however, is that it misses the central point of what we should really be trying to achieve, which is to reduce binge drinking, the kind of drinking that involves getting as drunk as possible as quickly as possible.
The aftermath of this is visible on our streets around the country every weekend night and it's not a pretty sight. The violence, urinating in public, criminal damage, the atmosphere of threat, it's a cocktail that turns parts of our towns and cities into areas where ordinary people fear to go.
The real question is why a minority of Irish people, particularly young people, behave in this way, why they cannot enjoy themselves on a night out without getting out of their heads.
Where does the compulsion to drink to excess come from? There are various theories about this, ranging from the legacy of our sad history to a lack of imagination and creativity, and a failure by our education system to inculcate values and a sense of self worth in youngsters.
This lack is sometimes described as an internal vacuum in some Irish people which they fill with booze. And the compulsion to do so is unlikely to be reversed by minimum pricing. People who are determined to drink to excess will find a way to get the cash and others (including their children) may suffer as a result.
The truth is that a lot of the excess drinking we see here is down to this lack of imagination, an inability to feel enjoyment or satisfaction without drinking in a destructive way.
It's debatable whether simply setting minimum prices for cheap booze will do much about this fundamental problem. What it will do, however, is penalize all those responsible drinkers who like a glass of wine or a bottle of beer at home in the evening as they relax after a day's work.
Penalizing everyone through minimum pricing tars everyone with the same brush. It reinforces the myth that all Irish people have a problem with alcohol, related to our fondness for a "session" and the "craic."
This national stereotype would lead you to believe that we must be the biggest drinkers in Europe, if not the world. But it's simply not true.
We're roughly in the middle of the alcohol league in Europe. WHO figures for last year show that on average everyone here over the age of 15 drinks 11.9 liters of pure alcohol a year, slightly above the European average of 10.9 liters. The highest are the Lithuanians who drink 15.4 liters a year.
The top five heavy-drinking nations in Europe are Lithuania, Romania, Czech Republic, Portugal and Poland. These countries all have alcohol prices that are lower than the EU average, which would seem to back up the government's case for minimum pricing here.
But that does not really stack up because there is so much tax on booze here already that Ireland has the third most expensive alcohol price in the EU, over 60 percent more than the average price in Europe.
Wine is an example of this. The Irish independent recently pointed out that if you buy an €8 bottle of wine in Ireland at present, only 11 cents of that is the cost of the liquid itself -- the taxman gets €4.69 and the retailer, distributor and others along the chain share out the other €3.20.
The real proof that the problem among some people in Ireland is cultural rather than one of cheap booze can be seen by comparing us to other countries in Europe. In Germany, where beer is half the price it is here, they drink less alcohol a year than us. And in Italy, where drinkable wine in rural areas is less than €1 a bottle, they drink less than anyone else in Europe.
Our problem is binge drinking among a small section (20 percent) of the drinking population. It's not going to be fixed by minimum pricing. It's more fundamental than that.
And when confronted with the stereotype of the drunken Irish we should remember that 80 percent of people here who drink do so in a civilized manner. And 20 percent of the population do not drink at all.