Death of Former Minister Brian Lenihan – Expressions of Sympathy

15th June 2011

On behalf of the Independent group, I, too, pass on my deepest sympathy to the late Deputy Brian Lenihan’s family, to his wife Patricia, to his children, Tom and Clare, and to all his friends and colleagues.

I want to focus on his work as Minister of State with responsibility for children from 2002 to 2007, because that is where I knew him best. He was a true children’s champion. He was the first to secure a seat at Cabinet for the children’s portfolio as a so-called super-junior Minister, but he really transformed that role. We have seen the progression even more so lately. During his five years in the post, he was responsible for the creation of the Office of the Minister for Children and he appointed the first Ombudsman for Children. He engaged rigorously and seriously with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s process on monitoring Ireland’s performance. He also reformed areas such as youth justice and early years education.

Significantly, I remember his national play policy which saw the creation of a significant number of playgrounds throughout the country. Often, as politicians, to promote playgrounds does not always seem popular and I think he had to refer to the youth justice and early intervention programme, or something similar, when he was talking to the Department of Finance about playgrounds, but they are so important to childhood and he led that sphere. One will see those playgrounds throughout the country.

He also introduced the universal preschool year, which he defended as Minister for Finance. It is an important initiative that I hope will grow. He also introduced and commenced the national longitudinal study, from which I hope we will reap the rewards of learning of what works for children and what does not. These seeds have been planted and these trees will bear fruit. We will see in years to come what he did.

Most of all, I remember his work on the Constitution, both as Chair of the all-party committee on the Constitution – as a young person, I remember going before him asking for the voting age to be lowered – but also on children’s rights in the Constitution. In November 2006, the previous Government announced its intention to strengthen children’s rights in the Constitution. This was the time when people were questioning whether this should be done rather than when it should be done. I remember on 2 January getting the first of quite a number of telephone calls from Brian Lenihan because he had spent the entire Christmas consuming and reading every book, article and anything he could on the Constitution. He was brimming with ideas and I had to come in at the earliest opportunity. This led to a serious and deep engagement of telephone calls very early in the morning and late in the evening where he would sound one out. Many of us were used to those sounding-out telephone calls. For me, it showed his personal commitment to children’s rights and to strengthening the Constitution. When he was Minister for Finance, even with all the difficulties, he earmarked €3 million, which is still earmarked, for the holding of a referendum. He was a true friend and I will always be grateful for his passion, intellect and dedication to children’s rights.

As a Minister, he openly, collaboratively and respectfully engaged with non-governmental organisations. I, along with many others, will carry on the fight – his fight – to strengthen children’s rights in the Constitution and will do so knowing that he gave us a helping hand, and that he did this above and beyond the call of duty. May he rest in peace.

Progress on the 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language – Statements

9th June 2011

Thank you very much. I apologise. Three weeks ago I did not know I would be standing here and I have another pressing commitment. I trust the House will understand.

I welcome the strategy and its ambitions. I hope I can be one of its successes by building on the Irish I learned at school and, in a future debate, I may be able to contribute as Gaeilge. That is a challenge I have set myself. I very much welcome the information provided by the Minister of State. The Cabinet sub-committee is central to driving the implementation of the strategy and I am happy that it has been established and has met twice. I look forward to hearing more about that.

I also welcome the fact that the Minister for Education and Skills is a member of the sub-committee. The backdrop to the debate today is the many thousands of students sitting the junior certificate Irish examination, including my nephew. I hope all our students, including him, do well. However, I refer to the issue of how Irish is dealt with in the education system. I welcome the changes being made, but we need to do more to ensure Irish remains a living language not only in gaelscoileanna but throughout our education system with children being exposed to the language in preschool and through the media and so on.

I lived for three years in Brussels, which is a bilingual capital. It taught me that all advertisements have to be in two languages. My husband is Dutch but I did not know him at the time. I gained great exposure to Flemish during my time in Brussels because I had French and I was able to compare both languages. Subliminally, one’s vocabulary increases. There is something to be said for subliminal exposure aside from formal education. For example, in our system, Irish classes are held for set periods of 30 or 40 minutes. The language should seep through our education system in smaller, fun and creative ways so that Irish becomes a living language for children from an early stage. They should not be restricted to set periods where they have to learn, rehearse and recite. They should be encouraged to play games and engage in activities. A number of sporting organisations are doing this and that is welcome. There must be a greater focus on the aural aspect of the language and we need to be creative in how we do that.

The Minister of State announced that there will be a new statutory definition of linguistic borders based on studies. Will he elaborate on the criteria that will be used and on the studies? I tried to research them but I was unable to establish whether they had been published. Perhaps he can advise us on this. I welcome his planned approach to Gaeltacht networks where Irish is spoken so that an appropriate environment can be created and they can expand.

I very much look forward to future debates on the language in the House. I hope we will be able to support the Minister of State in the implementation of the strategy. It is rightly ambitious. This is a good time for us to have this discussion but we need to examine the strategy’s implementation and ensure the language gets to live.

Order of Business, 7 June 2011

7th June 2011

I formally announce the establishment of the Independent group. The group comprises me as leader, and Senators Eamon Coghlan, Fiach Mac Conghail, Martin McAleese, Marie-Louise O’Donnell, Mary Ann O’Brien and Dr. Katherine Zappone.

I echo Senator Bacik’s call in respect of the recommendations of the United Nations committee against torture with regard to the Magdalene laundries. The Minister for Justice and Equality will shortly bring proposals to Cabinet. I ask that the Seanad be given an opportunity, following discussions at Cabinet level, to discuss the recommendations he proposes. We will have considerable views on this important issue.
I welcome the call for a discussion on the programme for Government. Perhaps this discussion can be held on a thematic basis to ensure that we get richness and focus in the debate.

Fourth Report of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection – Statements

7th June 2011

I welcome the opportunity to debate the fourth report of the special rapporteur on child protection, the child law expert Mr. Geoffrey Shannon who has delivered a comprehensive and considered analysis of child protection.
I warmly welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. As a new Senator, I welcome the appointment of the former Senator to her new role. As she stated, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs was established only last week, but I know she has been doing plenty of work behind the scenes, which includes the creation of a new agency dedicated to family and children’s services which will make a significant improvement and I hope have a positive impact on children’s lives.

I welcome the Minister’s response to the report of the Government appointed special rapporteur. Mr. Shannon is responsible for keeping under review and auditing legal developments in Ireland for the protection of children and identifying gaps in child protection. This is the first time that any of his reports is being debated in the Oireachtas. The need for this debate and subsequent action is evident to me.

Let us look back at the first report of the special rapporteur on child protection, which was written in the shadow of the horrific murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, England. In that report in 2007 Mr. Shannon identified the need for legislation dealing with soft information. He also outlined a road map. Years have passed and it is only in the past few weeks that we have seen action on this important issue under the direction of the Minister. I hope we will also see action in other areas.

We must deal with child protection in the here and now. In Ireland we can talk about the past and try to share and console one another. However, we have to try to atone for the past and for me the best way to do so is to ensure children are protected adequately and sufficiently. That will demonstrate we have learned the lessons of the past.

There are 105 recommendations in Mr. Shannon’s report. I will focus on some of the key areas at which we need to look.

I endorse the report completely and entirely. The first part deals with strengthening child protection structures. We still have a weak child protection structure in Ireland; neither the guidelines nor the vetting system operates on a statutory basis. The Ryan report implementation plan spotlighted these inadequacies. In his report Mr. Shannon has identified some of the gaps; for example, Children First: national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children is a voluntary set of guidelines. I acknowledge that the Minister is working to legislate, as well as ensuring a revised set of guidelines is published and, equally important, subsequent practice guidelines by the HSE are put in place. These need to be placed on a statutory basis because we need to ensure there is a collective duty to report concerns about the neglect or abuse of a child. This is a basic child protection measure that is readily applied in other countries. We need to get to the stage where one can report a concern and that it does not have to escalate immediately to one of abuse. As a voluntary leader, I can relate to this. At present, unless there are alarm bells ringing, it is very difficult to get the system moving. For me, success will be achieved when we start to join the dots. Should I have a concern for one of the girl guides in my care and the teacher have a concern, somebody should joins the dots and ensure supports are put in place to help the family to work and that if the child needs to be taken into care, he or she is.

On vetting and soft information, Mr. Shannon rightly identifies the failure to regulate the exchange of soft information has severely compromised the protection of children in the State. There were two cases in the courts in 2010 in which inter-agency co-operation was identified as a roadblock. In addition, we know that the appeal in M.I. v. HSE currently before the Supreme Court has the potential to undermine the vetting system. Mr. Shannon has raised a red flag and we should take action. I know that the Minister is working on this very pressing issue.

With regard to children and the criminal law, Mr. Shannon’s observations also provide much food for thought. It is very important to ensure practice and the law are always in support of the child victim and that all activities undertaken are in the best interests of the child.
Mr. Shannon raises the issue of disclosure in cases of child sexual abuse. At present, the confidential records are shared with the defence during criminal trials. Understandably, victims are often afraid that their personal records will be made available to the accused, resulting in fewer cases being processed. Mr. Shannon, therefore, recommends that Ireland urgently requires legislation and better regulation of the disclosure of children’s records during such trials.

As the issue of joint interviewing and training has been raised by several of my colleagues, I will not dwell on that point, except to say we need to ensure children do not have to undergo unnecessary interviewing. We should ensure their best interests are at the heart of investigations.

The third of the five areas involves children in the care of the State. As the Minister is aware, many children in the care of the State are extremely vulnerable. They do not have an adult to champion their cause, the role parents traditionally undertake. They really are marginalised and should be entitled to the highest possible supports. Regrettably, this does not always happen. We are all well aware of the high profile cases in the media where children have been utterly failed by the State. Mr. Shannon’s report makes some solid recommendations to mitigate such disasters and I recommend that they be taken on board.
Senator Mary White has called for the out-of-hours services to be available nationwide and I agree. I welcome the piloting of these services in counties Donegal and Cork and I hope this will ensure that at last we can get 24-hour support for children. I can get support if I have my pet at home, but I cannot get it for a child, which says something about our society’s values.

The Minister has said that addressing youth homelessness is a priority and the programme for Government contains such a commitment. Mr. Shannon is rightly critical of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 2011 relating to begging as it applies to children. We must remember that children who beg are highly vulnerable and child begging strikes to the very essence of child welfare and children’s rights.

Several of my colleagues have raised the important issue of aftercare and how people do not suddenly become adults on their 18th birthday. It does not happen overnight and parents of 19, 20 and 21 year olds will tell me it is a transition phase into adulthood. We need to ensure the State provides aftercare support for all homeless children and children in care in order that we still hold their hand and gently helping them into independence and adulthood. The link between youth homelessness and children leaving State care has been clearly established. While this was not in the report, the latest housing-need statistics, gathered in 2008, show that the largest increase in demand for social housing was from young people leaving institutional care, an increase of 179% since 2005.

The report makes important recommendations on children’s mental health. I speak also in my capacity as chair of the Children’s Mental Health Coalition, which has given me an insight into how mental health difficulties can impact on any family, anywhere in the country and at any time. I fully support and endorse these recommendations. Among them, the report recommends that the Mental Health Act 2001 should be amended to include a separate section which clarifies the rights of children within the mental health system. This should include legislation to clarify the right of those over 16 to consent to medical intervention and detention in psychiatric institutions. Related recommendations include: an amendment to the mental capacity Bill to include persons aged 16 years, and the development of a detailed code of practice on admission to and treatment of children within mental health institutions, complaints mechanisms and better consultation with children.

I was delighted to see the reports very clear recommendations on child trafficking, an issue about which I feel very passionately. Child trafficking is a very serious issue and in Ireland we often would like to feel it does not happen. Some four out of five trafficked children are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Cases of child trafficking have been discovered in many parts of Ireland, including counties Dublin, Sligo, Kilkenny and Wexford. Last week, this was once again highlighted through a disclosure contained in cables obtained by a national newspaper through the whistle-blowing organisation WikiLeaks. HSE officials admitted to US diplomats conducting research for an annual report on people-trafficking in Ireland that children have been going missing from State care and ending up working as sex slaves in brothels. Mr. Shannon’s report recommends criminal sanctions against the users of paid sexual services and I welcome the Minister’s proposal to look at Swedish legislation with a view to introducing similar legislation to criminalise those who access these services.
I would also welcome our ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography. Ireland signed this optional protocol 11 years ago and now needs to ratify it. With the Adoption Act 2010 in place, we are very close to ratifying it and we need to do so. I am involved in a campaign with the Body Shop and the Childrens Rights Alliance, which has collected almost 150,000 signatures calling on Ireland to ratify this optional protocol.

This debate is extremely important but I hope it is not just a once-off debate. I hope the Seanad can review the implementation on an annual basis and use the special rapporteur’s report. One of the Oireachtas committees to be established should be charged with ensuring recommendations from reports of this nature are implemented. All too often we see these reports where we agree with the recommendations. We need to roll up our sleeves with a view to improving outcomes for children and make a difference. In all the work I have done on the issue, I have found this is not a party issue but an issue on which we agree across the board. I would like us to go beyond raising the complaints, and to support the Minister and her new Department in improving outcomes for children.

Criminal Justice – Female Genital Mutilation – Bill 2011 – Second Stage

2 June 2012

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive presentation of the Bill. I am delighted that we are discussing this legislation, which is the first measure on which I have shared my views. As previous speakers have said, this is a positive step and I hope the Bill will be passed without delay so it can be placed on the Statute Book. While my comments are aimed at strengthening and improving the Bill, I will be giving it my full support. I wish to thank the Children’s Rights Alliance, AkiDwA, Amnesty International Ireland and other NGOs for their briefings. I also acknowledge the leading and supportive role played by Senator Bacik on this important matter.
We all recognise the horrors of FGM as a gross violation of human rights, as well as being a critical issue concerning children’s rights and child protection. FGM has real implications for children living in Ireland today.

Families in Ireland from FGM practising regions have reported serious pressures from overseas families to bring their daughters back to have the procedures carried out. This Bill must make it abundantly clear that Ireland will not tolerate this practice. It must be passed to bring Ireland into line with the majority of European countries but, most importantly, it will help families and parents to counter pressure to submit their daughters to FGM. It should act as a deterrent to the continuation of the practice and deliver a clear preventative message.

I will use my time to focus on the Bill. As Senators, it is our duty to make this Bill as strong as possible. There are three important areas that I propose should either be amended or clarified. The first in regard to defences. I am extremely concerned about section 2 in terms of defences, which seems to allow for a surgical operation unnecessary for the protection of her physical or mental health. This is not an acceptable defence and should be removed. We know that FGM has no health benefits and involves removing and or damaging healthy and normal body tissue. I am also concerned that mental health could be used as a defence by a parent or guardian to remove a child from Ireland to undergo FGM abroad. If such a defence is used, that is tantamount to saying that FGM must be performed to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of a girl but I do not know how this could be used in a country like Ireland where FGM is deemed totally unacceptable. The use of such a defence effectively links mental health to culture, yet the Bill elsewhere rightly states that the defence of culture cannot be used.

The second issue I would like to mention, which several colleagues raised, is that of extra-territoriality. I welcome the inclusion of the vital principle of extra-territoriality, making it an offence for an Irish citizen or a person ordinarily resident in Ireland to commit or attempt to commit an act of FGM in another country. I note the Minister’s comments on this important issue but I am still concerned. Currently, the FGM act must therefore be illegal in the jurisdiction where the act takes place for it to be an offence. I am concerned about the issue of dual criminality, which the Minister has raised. This is an issue on which we need to send a very strong message to the effect that, regardless of the other country’s legal stance, in Ireland it is illegal and it must be illegal for a person to take a child to any other country. This to me is as important as terrorism and I would like that issue to be re-examined.

The third issue is in regard to the definition in the Bill on which many speakers have commented. The definition is close to the World Health Organisation’s definition, which the Minister referenced. I question why we would not use the World Health Organisations definition to ensure that it is abundantly clear.
I fully support the Bill, as drafted, but we could go further and send a very strong message.

Order of Business, 1 June 2011

1 June 2011

I extend my congratulations to the Leader and deputy leader of the House, the Leader of the Opposition and whoever else needs to be congratulated.

I confirm that the Independent Taoiseach’s nominees will form a group. We come from very different civil society groups and have different representations. Our diversity is our strength. We wish to maximise the opportunity that has been presented to us. We all have issues that are close to our hearts. However, I can guarantee that we will knock on the Leader’s door to discuss Seanad reform.

I thank my colleagues in the group for putting their trust in me to lead the group for the time being. I will do my best. We have people of excellent calibre in the group and we will use our time wisely.

I thank the Leader for his agreement to a debate on an important report by Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, who is a special rapporteur on child protection. Too often, reports come and go and we wait for television programmes like a Prime Time Investigates to expose the horrors. I recommend to colleagues that they read this report before we debate it next week. I hope we do not use the time allotted for the debate simply to complain but to discuss the solutions required and the legislation and policies needed to achieve them. These solutions include the provision of a 24 hour out-of-hours social work service, a range of reforms for children with mental health difficulties and reform of elements of the criminal justice system, including the introduction of legislation to disclose confidential records.

There is a long overdue need to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis, which would ensure there is a duty to report concerns of neglect or abuse of a child, a point which was very much highlighted this morning at the launch by the Ombudsman for Children of her annual report.

I welcome the opportunity that will be presented to us tomorrow to discuss the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill 2011. This is an issue that is very close to my heart and I have seen the horrific ramifications the practice can have for women. I hope we will be able to strengthen the Bill and help it move through the Houses as quickly as possible.

EESC – Alcohol related harm – Opinion of the Rapporteur, Ms. van Turnhout

European Economic and Social Committee

SOC/340
Alcohol related harm

Brussels, 30 September 2009

OPINION
of the
European Economic and Social Committee
on
How to make the EU strategy on alcohol related harm sustainable, long-term and multisectoral (Exploratory opinion)

_____________

Rapporteur: Ms van Turnhout
_____________

In a letter dated 18 December 2008, in the context of the forthcoming Swedish Presidency of the European Union, the Swedish Minister for European Affairs asked the European Economic and Social Committee to draft an exploratory opinion on the following subject:

How to make the EU strategy on alcohol related harm sustainable, long-term and multisectoral.

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee’s work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 1 September 2009. The rapporteur was Ms van Turnhout.

At its 456 plenary session, held on 30 September 2009 and 1 October 2009 (meeting of 30 September 2009), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 128 votes to 5 with 4 abstentions.

*

* *

1. Summary and recommendations

1.1 Drawn up in response to a request by the Swedish Presidency to the EESC, this exploratory Opinion focuses on how to make the EU strategy on alcohol related harm sustainable, long-term and multisectoral . The goal of the Swedish Presidency is to support the implementation of the horizontal EU alcohol strategy and the establishment of long-term preventive work at both EU and national level.

1.2 This Opinion builds on the previous EESC Opinion on alcohol related harm, which looked at five priority themes: protecting children; reducing alcohol related road accidents; preventing alcohol related harm among adults and in the workplace; information, education and raising awareness; and common evidence base .

1.3 The Opinion highlights the following four priorities of the Presidency:

– the impact of advertising and marketing on young people;
– the influence of price on the development of damage;
– children in focus – specifically foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and children in families; and
– the effects of harmful alcohol consumption on healthy and dignified ageing.

to achieve a comprehensive approach, all of the themes dealt with in both opinions and other relevant matters should be taken together.

1.4 Drinking patterns vary significantly across countries, but most consumers drink responsibly most of the time (see 3.2) . Having said that, the EESC is concerned that 15% of the EU adult population are estimated to drink at harmful levels on a regular basis, and that children are the most vulnerable to the harms caused by alcohol. Policy measures should be designed to reach those already drinking at harmful levels.

1.5 Alcohol marketing is one of the factors that increases the likelihood that children and adolescents will start to use alcohol, and will drink more if they are already using alcohol. Given this, the EESC calls for a reduction in the exposure of children to alcohol marketing.

1.6 Appropriately designed alcohol pricing policies can be effective levers in reducing alcohol related harm, particularly among low income and young people. The EESC believes that regulation governing the availability, distribution and promotion of alcohol is needed; self-regulation in this area is not enough.

1.7 To raise awareness about the risk of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), the EESC supports national and EU level awareness-raising campaigns.

1.8 The EESC believes that more information is needed about the effects of harmful alcohol consumption on healthy and dignified ageing at an EU level.

1.9 The EESC recognises that alcohol policies should be comprehensive and include a variety of measures for which there is evidence of reducing harm.

2. Background

2.1 The European Union has competence and responsibility to address public health problems related to harmful and hazardous alcohol use on the basis of article 152 (1) of the Treaty , which states that Community action shall complement national policies.

2.2 Following the Council Recommendation of 2001 on the drinking of alcohol by young people , it invited the Commission to follow and assess developments and the measures taken, and to report back on the need for further actions.

2.3 In its Conclusions of June 2001 and of June 2004, the Commission was invited to put forward proposals for a comprehensive Community strategy aimed at reducing alcohol-related harm which would complement national policies .

2.4 In 2006, the Commission adopted the Communication: An EU Strategy to support member states in reducing alcohol related harm . It aims to “map actions” put in place by the Commission and Member States, and explains how the Commission can further supports and complements national health policies. The EESC believes that the Communication falls far short of a ‘comprehensive strategy’ as it does not provide a comprehensive and transparent analysis of all the relevant policy areas and of the difficulties some Member States have experienced in maintaining quality public health alcohol policies due to EU market rules . The Strategy also fails to acknowledge that alcohol is a psychoactive drug, a toxic substance when used to excess, and, for some, an addictive substance.

2.5 The European Court of Justice has repeatedly confirmed that reducing alcohol related harm is an important and valid public health goal, using measures deemed appropriate and in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity .

2.6 The EESC acknowledges the work performed by all relevant stakeholders within the European Alcohol and Health Forum since its launch in 2007. The EESC welcomes similar developments at local levels.

3. Overview of harmful effects

3.1 Globally, the European Union is the region where most alcohol is consumed, with 11 litres of pure alcohol consumed per person each year . Overall consumption declined between the 1970s and mid-1990s, since when it has remained relatively stable; however there are still differences between countries in terms of both consumption and harm, also in terms of the form the harm takes ; however, harmful drinking patterns remain significant .

3.2 Most consumers drink responsibly most of the time. However, the EESC is concerned that 55 million adults in the EU (15% of the adult population) are estimated to drink at harmful levels on a regular basis . Harmful alcohol consumption is estimated to be responsible for approximately 195 000 deaths a year in the EU due to accidents, liver disease, cancers and so forth. Harmful alcohol use is the third biggest cause of early death and illness in the EU .

3.3 The EESC believes that harmful alcohol consumption by individuals is not a problem that develops in isolation, but rather one that can have a variety of causes including poverty, social exclusion, family environment, and work-related stress.

3.4 While different cultural habits related to alcohol consumption across Europe exist, it can also be observed that different cultural habits related to harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption, including among children and adolescents, exist . The EESC urges the Commission and the Member States to take account of these national and local patterns when defining policies.

3.5 Children are particularly vulnerable to harms caused by alcohol. It is estimated that in the EU 5 to 9 million children in families are adversely affected by alcohol. Alcohol is a causal factor in 16% of cases of child abuse and neglect, and an estimated 60 000 underweight births each year are attributable to alcohol .

3.6 Harmful alcohol consumption can cause harm not only to the individual but also to third persons. Alcohol-related harm should also be addressed in the workplace, in the framework of health and safety regulations, which is primarily the responsibility of the employer. Workplace alcohol policies could help reduce alcohol-related accidents, absenteeism and increase working capacity. The EESC urges employers, trade unions, local authorities and other relevant organisations to closely cooperate and to undertake joint actions to reduce alcohol-related harm in workplaces.

3.7 Alcohol is an important commodity in the Europe creating jobs, generating revenue through taxes and contributing to the balance of trade. However, harmful alcohol drinking also affects the economy, due to increased health care and social costs, and loss of productivity. The cost of alcohol related harm to the EU’s economy was estimated at EUR 125 billion for 2003, equivalent to 1.3% of GDP .

4. The impact of advertising and marketing on young people

4.1 The EESC urges the Commission to acknowledge the WHO European Charter on Alcohol adopted by all EU Member States in 1995 and, in particular, the ethical principle that all children and adolescents have the right to grow up in an environment protected from the negative consequences of alcohol consumption and, to the extent possible, from the promotion of alcoholic beverages.

4.2 The EU Council recommendation urged Member States to establish effective mechanisms in the field of promotion, marketing and retailing and to ensure that alcohol products were not designed or promoted to appeal to children and adolescents.

4.3 Binge drinking by young adults (15-24 years) is a growing concern at EU and Member State level; 24% of drinkers in this age group reported binge drinking at least once a week in 2006 . Beer (40%) and spirits (30%) are the most often consumed alcoholic drinks among teenagers , followed by wine (13%), alcopops (11%) and cider (6%). Alcohol sales promotions such as “happy hour” and “two for one” promotions also increase alcohol consumption and the likelihood of binge drinking among youth . As a step forwards, the stricter enforcement of legal drinking age by authorities is required.

4.4 Alcohol advertising and marketing are influential in shaping young people’s attitudes to and perceptions of alcohol, and encouraging positive expectations of alcohol use amongst young people . A review of longitudinal studies by the Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum found “consistent evidence to demonstrate an impact of alcohol advertising on the uptake of drinking among non-drinking young people, and increased consumption among their drinking peers. This finding is all the more striking, given that only a small part of a total marketing strategy has been studied” .

4.5 The EESC is concerned that alcohol marketing attracts underage drinkers , and draws attention to consistent findings that exposure to television and sponsorship that contains alcohol predicts the onset of youth drinking and increased drinking .

4.6 The WHO Expert Committee considered that “voluntary systems do not prevent the kind of marketing which has an impact on younger people and that self-regulation seems to work only to the extent that there is a current and credible threat of regulation by government” .

4.7 Actors in the alcohol beverage chain have declared their willingness to be more proactive in enforcing regulatory and self-regulatory measures . They have a role in working together with the Member States to ensure their products are produced, distributed and marketed in a responsible manner, contributing to reduce alcohol related harm.

4.8 The Audiovisual Media Services Directive helps set minimum standards for alcohol advertising. It specifies that “[…]alcohol advertisements shall […] not be aimed specifically at minors, shall not link the consumption of alcohol to enhanced physical performance, social or sexual success and shall not claim that it is a stimulant, a sedative or a means of resolving personal conflicts” . The EESC believes that this Directive alone is not sufficient to fully protect children from alcohol marketing.

4.9 The EESC urges that a reduction in the exposure of children to alcohol products, advertising and promotions be stated as a specific objective by the Commission, and that tighter regulation in this area be introduced.

5. The influence of price on alcohol related harms

5.1 There is increasing pan-European interest in measures to combat alcohol related harms. Alcohol is an important commodity in Europe, creating jobs, generating revenue through taxes and contributing to the EU economy through trade. However, an estimated 15% drinks at harmful levels generating harm for individuals and societies. In 2003, the cost of alcohol misuse in the EU was estimated at EUR 125 billion, equivalent of 1.3% GDP .

5.2 Based on the RAND study, there is a trend across the EU towards more off-trade alcohol consumption, which tends to be cheaper than alcohol sold on-trade . However, it should be noted that the study focused only on off trade alcohol prices and did not compare off trade prices to on trade prices.

5.3 Studies show that alcohol became more affordable across the EU between 1996 and 2004, in some countries by more than 50% . Evidence shows that there is a positive relationship between alcohol affordability and alcohol consumption in the EU .

5.4 Young people are sensitive to alcohol price increases, which lead to reduced frequency of drinking among young people and, to smaller quantities drunk in each drinking event . However, other studies show that young people may turn to more harmful drinking patterns in response to price increase, e.g. pre-drinking where people consume cheaper alcohol at home before going out. This finding has important implications for alcohol policy in the EU, particularly given the increase in harmful youth drinking.

5.5 An estimated 3.8% of all global deaths and 4.6% of global disability-adjusted life-years are attributed to alcohol. There is a positive relationship between alcohol consumption and traffic injuries and traffic deaths . Alcohol is the sole cause of some diseases such as alcoholic liver disease and alcohol-induced pancreatitis, and is a contributory cause of other diseases and injuries (e.g. certain types of cancer, heart disease and strokes and liver cirrhosis) . Harmful alcohol consumption is a contributory factor for crime, violence and family deprivation, risky sexual behaviour and sexually transmitted disease .

5.6 It is estimated that across the EU heavy episodic drinking contributes to 2 000 homicides, 17 000 traffic deaths (or one in three of all traffic fatalities), 27 000 accidental deaths and 10 000 suicides .

5.7 Alcohol pricing policies can be effective levers in reducing alcohol related harms . The EESC nevertheless believes that pricing policy should be considered when developing strategies to address alcohol related harm in a long-term, sustainable and multi-sectoral way.

5.8 Alcohol policies should be comprehensive and include a variety of measures for which there is evidence of an impact in reducing harm, such as drink drive policies and primary health based interventions. The EESC recognises that no single measure can solve alcohol related harm.

5.9 The EESC believes that efficient enforcement of regulation governing the availability, distribution and promotion of alcohol is needed. Self-regulation in this area is part of the solution, but in itself not sufficient. Restrictions on sales below cost and on sales promotions should be possible without being trade restrictive or in contravention with EU law.

6. Children in focus – specifically foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and children in families

6.1 The destiny of Europe depends on a healthy and productive population. The evidence that a higher proportion of the disease burden from harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption is experienced by young people is therefore of grave concern to the EESC .
6.2 The Commission recognises that children have a right to effective protection against economic exploitation and all forms of abuse . The EESC strongly supports this position.

6.3 The EESC notes that harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption impacts negatively not only on the drinker but on people other than the drinker, especially in relation to accidents, injuries and violence. In families, the EESC recognises that the most vulnerable group at risk are children.

6.4 It is estimated that 5 to 9 million children in families are adversely affected by alcohol, that alcohol is a contributing factor in 16% of cases of child abuse and neglect, as well as contributing to an estimated 60 000 underweight births each year . Further negative effects for children include poverty and social exclusion, which can affect their health, education and well-being both now and in the future.

6.5 Domestic violence, a serious problem in many countries , is strongly linked to problems of heavy drinking by the perpetrator . While domestic violence can occur in the absence of alcohol, heavy drinking can contribute to violence among some people. A reduction in heavy drinking benefits the victims and perpetrators of violence, and the children living in such families.

6.6 Alcohol can affect children even before they are born. Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) describes a continuum of permanent birth defects (physical, behavioural and cognitive) caused by maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.

6.7 Awareness about FASD and its effects is low. Disseminating evidence-based examples of preventive programmes to reduce alcohol harm during pregnancy is critical. The EESC supports the use of targeted EU and national Government campaigns to raise awareness about the risk of FASD.

7. The effects of harmful alcohol consumption on healthy and dignified ageing

7.1 Older people are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. Specific problems include balance and risk of falling and the onset of health problems that can make older people more susceptible to alcohol. About a third of older people develop drinking problems for the first time in later life, often due to bereavement, physical ill-health, difficulty getting around and social isolation .

7.2 Harmful alcohol consumption can affect older people’s mental health in the form of: anxiety, depression and confusion.

7.3 Alcohol Use Disorders are common among older people, particularly among males who are socially isolated, and living alone . Problematic alcohol use is associated with widespread impairments in physical, psychological, social and cognitive health. Around 3% of those over 65 years suffer from these disorders , though many cases may go undetected as diagnostic criteria and screening are directed at younger adults. However, treating older people for alcohol problems is often easier than treating younger adults.

7.4 Alcohol can add to the effects of some medications, and reduce the effects of others. Raising awareness among care professionals, informal carers and older citizens of potential interaction between medication and alcohol is important.

7.5 The EESC believes that more needs to be done to address the wellbeing of the ageing population in the EU, including information about the effects of harmful alcohol consumption on healthy and dignified ageing at an EU level.

Brussels, 30 September 2009.

The President
of the
European Economic and Social Committee

Mario Sepi