Health Minister Micheal Martin cited a pilot study showing that a quarter of all admissions to accident and emergency wards were alcohol-related — and 13 percent of patients arrived "clinically intoxicated."
Martin, who also unveiled details of government plans to restrict alcohol advertising, said he was seeking "measures to reduce the pattern of people turning up hopelessly drunk" at hospitals.
The government of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern faces mounting criticism over the deteriorating state of its hospital system, which is suffering from nurse shortages, doctor strikes and insufficient numbers of beds. Patients complain they often have to wait hours on trolleys before being assigned a proper bed.
Martin said the soaring consumption of alcohol in Ireland — where more than 10,000 pubs cater to a population of 3.8 million — represented a major burden on the system.
He said Ireland's per-capita consumption of alcohol rose by 49 percent from 1989 to 2001 to reach 3.83 gallons per person, highest in the 15-nation European Union. He called these figures "staggering."
Martin said he would soon unveil a bill that tightens Ireland's laws regulating alcohol advertising, a move announced last week by Ahern.
Martin said current TV and billboard ads for alcoholic beverages violate existing laws because they "link alcohol use with social or sexual success and imply that alcohol has therapeutic effects."
"It is essential that we address the high exposure to the recurring positive messages about alcohol which, over time, helps to create or reinforce the attitudes and beliefs, particularly of young people," Martin said.
He said ads that currently feature at sporting events, before films and on prime-time TV would be limited or banned.
Ahern, who has overseen a center-right coalition government since 1997, has previously pushed through legislation to outlaw smoking in pubs effective Jan. 1, 2004. He says he also wants to put health warnings on alcoholic drinks, a move that would require European Union approval.
By Shawn Pogatchnik