Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I raise an important matter related to the protection of public health and social well-being. I ask the Government to make a statement on its planned strategy to tackle the growing misuse of alcohol. Despite HSE spending of almost €400,000 on alcohol-related problems, the drinking culture among young people is becoming even more pronounced. I note the comment by the former policy adviser to the Department of Health and Children, Dr. Ann Hope, that education through schools and mass media campaigns has failed. This is a worrying development.
While I realise the drinks lobby, which Members met today, is a very strong group and the industry makes an economic contribution to the country, it must also act responsibly. We must address binge drinking among young people. While education through schools is a good initiative, we must also actively promote activities outside school hours which keep teenagers away from alcohol and the culture of binge drinking. This should include greater roll-out of “no name clubs”, youth clubs and youth cafés. Such initiatives could, in time, be cost neutral to the State. Ógra Chorcaí and the various Foróige organisations do great work and provide our youth with positive outlets.
Ireland is recognised globally for its drinking culture and many tourists take account of the fun element when considering whether to visit Cork, Dublin, Galway or Kinsale, a town with which the Acting Chairman, Senator McCarthy, will be familiar. Alcohol abuse has a serious side and has an impact on society, the economy and the health and well-being of citizens. I refer specifically to Irish teenagers and young adults who drink more than their counterparts in any other European country. A survey carried out in 2007 by the European school survey project on alcohol and other drugs, ESPAD, showed that half of Irish schoolgoing students had drunk alcohol in the previous 12 months.
The facts surrounding alcohol abuse are alarming. Alcohol is responsible for 100 deaths per month and 2,000 beds are occupied every night in hospitals due to alcohol. Nearly half of all male suicides are directly related to the misuse of alcohol and one in four deaths among young men is alcohol related. Alcohol is also the cause of four times as many deaths as all other drugs combined. Alcohol-related harm costs the health sector €1.2 billion per annum and costs the State a further €1 billion through crime and public order offences.
Those who drink excessively in their teens will experience alcohol-related problems when they are older. Young adults are constantly being targeted and influenced by alcohol advertising, whether in sport, on television, at music events or on social networking sites. The most popular pages on the Irish Facebook site include those of bands such as U2 which has almost 3.5 million followers, Westlife which has 850,000 followers and the Oxygen music festival which has 100,000 followers. Other popular Facebook pages include the Ryanair page which has 46,000 followers and Munster rugby which has 30,000 followers. The power of alcohol is evident in the fact that Baileys has 850,000 followers on Facebook, Guinness UK has 286,000 followers and Guinness Ireland 129,000, while Jameson Whiskey has 90,000 followers and Captain Morgan rum has 59,000 followers.
The Government must give a clear and coherent message. While I am aware that Dr. Tony Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer, is pioneering the incorporation of alcohol in the national drugs strategy, I am not convinced we are selling the message to young people that alcohol misuse is dangerous. I ask the Minister of State to update the House on the test purchasing of alcohol scheme which commenced last month. Every year, 16 and 17 years olds in Ireland spend nearly €145 million on alcohol. What advice has the Ombudsman for Children given the Minister in this regard?
Binge drinking is becoming more widespread. This morning, representatives of the drinks industry informed Members at a meeting in a nearby hotel that it is carrying out drink awareness campaigns through the media and dedicated websites. We must encourage the industry to become proactive and work towards the aspiration of reducing alcohol consumption. I look forward to the Minister of State’s reply.
I have made it my policy not to meet representatives of the drinks industry, which has more than sufficient clout as matters stand. As we approach Christmas, Members receive the usual run of invitations to meet representatives of the Licensed Vintners Association and MEAS, the Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society organisation. These groups have more than enough access to the Oireachtas. The budget of MEAS, for instance, amounts to only a tiny fraction of the amount spent on advertising alcohol. I simply allow organisations such as the LVA and MEAS to make their case beyond the walls of this institution as I do not have the time or inclination to meet them to have them make the case for the brilliant work they are doing. The fact remains that they spend many tens of millions of euro each year promoting alcohol in the most invasive ways they can find. The Senator put his finger on the issue when he referred to the use of new media by alcohol companies.
Alcohol harm is visible throughout Ireland, whether on the streets, in the courts or in hospitals, workplaces, schools and homes. Despite the tendency to blame under age drinkers, the majority of alcohol harm occurs among the adult population. It manifests itself in street violence, accidents, hospital admissions, drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, suicides, alcohol dependency, cancers and cirrhosis. Some of these problems, especially those of an acute nature, arise when light or moderate drinkers drink to excess on a single drinking occasion while others result from regular heavy drinking over a long period.
We in Ireland have a problem with alcohol. I remember living in Italy for a year and one would never see someone over-indulging in alcohol. People were very good at simply mixing alcohol and food and not going out simply to drink. Alternatively, if they did so it would be a glass of beer, as opposed to a dozen pints.
However, I am concerned about the high level of alcohol consumption amongst younger people. Alcohol causes twice as many deaths as those due to all other drugs combined. One in four deaths in young men aged 15 to 34 is due to alcohol, compared to one in 12 deaths due to cancer and one in 25 deaths due to circulatory disease. Suicide rates have doubled in the last 20 years and alcohol is a factor in nearly half of all young male suicides. Alcohol also was responsible for nearly one quarter of the injuries presenting to emergency treatment centres and is a factor in eight out of ten rapes. In order to tackle the problems associated with alcohol misuse, we need to take responsibility both collectively and individually. There is a social acceptance of alcohol in our society and we must question the signal this is sending to young people in particular.
A considerable body of evidence shows that alcohol policies and interventions targeted at vulnerable populations can prevent alcohol-related harm. It also is the case that policies targeted at the population at large can have a protective effect. This is the approach taken in the strategic task force on alcohol report of 2004 and is consistent with the approach recommended by the World Health Organisation. That organisation has stated that a combination of strategies should be used to tackle alcohol misuse. These include the regulation and restriction of the availability of alcohol, regulation of the marketing of alcoholic beverages, enactment of appropriate drink-driving policies and implementing screening programmes, as well as brief interventions against hazardous and harmful use of alcohol, for example in primary care and accident and emergency departments. In line with the best and national advice, the Government has to date introduced random breath testing, reduced the opening hours for the sale of alcohol in off-licences and supermarkets and implemented controls on the marketing of alcohol. In addition, I am pleased to note that I have been breathalysed twice in the last 12 months. Random breath testing is a good and effective tool in the fight against the misuse of alcohol.
Deputy Ciarán Cuffe: On a more serious note, random breath testing is great and it is working. I hear people talking about it and they factor it into their behaviour. I believe it has led to a reduction in drink-driving and it is a positive tool in the fight against the misuse of alcohol.
The Government alcohol advisory group was set up in January 2008 to make recommendations to address the public order aspects of the licensing laws. The group’s recommendations formed the basis of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008. In responding to the group’s recommendations, the Government adopted a strategy to curtail alcohol consumption in public places, while also restricting the availability of alcohol. The aforementioned Act was conceived and passed within six months, which demonstrates the Government’s commitment to dealing with misuse from a public order perspective. The Act contains provisions for reduced hours for off-sales of alcohol and tougher public order provisions allowing the Garda to seize alcohol from minors. It also allows for the test purchasing of alcohol by persons under the age of 18. The Act requires applicants for a wine retailer’s off-licence to obtain a District Court certificate to get a licence. In addition, it has attached stricter conditions to the granting of a special exemption order.
In March 2009, the Government agreed to include alcohol in a national substance misuse strategy that would be co-ordinated by the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. A steering group has been established to develop proposals on alcohol policy for an overall national substance misuse strategy. This will incorporate the already agreed drugs policy element. The steering group is being chaired jointly by the Department of Health and Children and the office of the Minister with responsibility for drugs. It will base its recommendations on effective evidence-based measures to deal with the significant public health issue of alcohol in areas such as supply, pricing, prevention, treatment, awareness and education. The steering group is working towards completing its report by the end of this year. Certainly, if I had my way, I would ban the advertising of alcohol. The insidious links between alcohol and sport in particular act as a draw for young people and Members must consider both the primary means of regulation and the secondary effects of ways in which people are led to a message that links alcohol with enjoyment and other facilities.
I look forward to the publication of the report from the steering group, which will advise the Government on the necessary policies and actions to be taken to further reduce the harm caused by alcohol misuse in society. I thank the Senator for raising this issue. It is useful to have a reality check on what is happening and on what needs to be done to rethink how alcohol is perceived in society and to consider innovative ways of tackling misuse and abuse.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I thank the Minister of State for his reply, in which he made an interesting point with which he should revert to the Minister. I refer to the curtailment of alcohol consumption in public places. My concern is that there are insufficient resources really to tackle the issue of consumption in public places. In addition, I have concerns about the manner in which we have allowed some of our multiple chainstores to sell alcohol almost below cost in special offers. While I will not name the specific products, the Minister of State will be familiar with the practices to which I refer.
Deputy Ciarán Cuffe: I tend to agree with the Senator on that score. In my constituency of Dún Laoghaire, the Garda has been good at tackling gangs of kids with slabs of beer in the park during the summer months. Gardaí, community gardaí in particular, have worked well, not ramming the law down people’s throats, but in cases in which they see a propensity for abuse of alcohol they do something meaningful about it.
The issue of supermarket multiples and low-cost selling must be reconsidered. Germany, for example, has a so-called apple juice law, which in essence states that alcohol cannot be sold more cheaply than a soft drink or beverage. This helps to encourage people, both in licensed premises and elsewhere, to choose a non-alcoholic alternative. Such good examples can be examined and certainly there is much best practice abroad that bears re-examination in the context of Irish deliberations on how to tackle alcohol misuse.
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