Alcohol Pricing – Motion

16th November 2011

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and welcome her stated commitments on this issue. I also thank the Fine Gael Members, in particular Senators Noone and Colm Burke, for tabling this Private Members’ motion. It addresses the issue of alcohol related harm. This is not a pro or anti-alcohol discussion but pertains to alcohol related harm. It is estimated that the cost to the State in 2007 was approximately €3.7 billion which, if translated into the cost per taxpayer, is €3,318. Moreover, the profound societal ramifications of the harmful use of alcohol in Ireland makes it imperative this problem be tackled in a determined, concerted and swift fashion.

The motion as tabled correctly recognises that alcohol related crimes have risen in the past decade. This is supported by recent analysis from the Garda PULSE system, which recorded a 30% increase in alcohol related crimes between 2003 and 2007. It also showed the total number of offences among minors increased in the observed period by a staggering 54%. According to the same data, the 18 to 24 year group was responsible for two fifths of offences, while figures for those under 18 constitute 17% of offences, which is a matter of concern to me. As for the issue of harmful use of alcohol during pregnancy, it has a proven association with impaired foetal brain development, impaired intellectual development and cognitive and behavioural dysfunctions that can restrict educational attainment and stifle future development in life.

As previous Members have stated, the harmful use of alcohol can result in substantial economic costs or in the cost of labour market productivity. It has been suggested that absenteeism has cost Irish businesses €1.5 billion per year. A recent survey by IBEC found that alcohol was blamed by employers as the primary reason for 4% and 1% of short-term absences from work by their male and female employees, respectively. In respect of the health and health care cost implications, alcohol liver disease rates and deaths have almost trebled between 1995 and 2007. Among the 15 to 34 year age group, the rate of deaths from alcohol liver disease has increased by 247%. Seven out of ten men and four out of ten women who drink do so in a manner that is damaging to their health. Moreover, a total of 10% of general inpatient costs, 14% of psychiatric hospital costs, 7% of GP costs and up to 30% of emergency health care costs are alcohol related. Each night in Ireland, 2,000 hospital beds are occupied for alcohol related reasons.

I refer to the issue of children and the indirect impact of alcohol, as well as its direct impact. According to the recent report launched by the Minister of State, entitled Hidden Realities: Children’s Exposure to Risk from Parental Drinking in Ireland, 587,000 children are regularly exposed to risk from parental hazardous drinking. The harmful use of alcohol in the home is associated with increased incidences of verbal and physical abuse, witness to violence, neglect, isolation and insecurity. The exposure of children to risk from parental alcohol problems is amplified by the significant burden children bear, such as a care role reversal and keeping secret the problem, which has a great cost to the child concerned in respect of school and developmental life.
I thank Fine Gael for incorporating the proposals that were put forward by Senator Crown and myself in our amendment, which I appreciate. I would like the programme to be added for the following reason. The latest HSE alcohol awareness campaign, for example, speaks of the weekly standard drinks allowance, which is 14 units for adult women and 21 for adult men, and advises that one standard drink is equivalent to 10 g of pure alcohol. My understanding is that the standard drink measurement will be reconverted back to grams across the board, so I propose this amendment to pre-empt this change.

With regard to below cost selling, I thank Fine Gael for adding the words “and very cheaply”. This is a specific pricing strategy. It is important to note that “very cheap alcohol” is a term that is preferred by quite a number of organisations, such as Alcohol Action Ireland, Barnardos, Focus Ireland, No Name clubs, Rape Crisis Network Ireland, the Ballymun Local Drugs Task Force, the Irish Cancer Society, the Irish Heart Foundation, the Irish Medical Organisation, the ISPCC, the National Youth Council of Ireland and the North West Alcohol Forum. It is also supported by the Vintners Federation of Ireland. I welcome the amendment and the harmony we have reached.

The reason I had a difficulty with the term “below cost selling” is that there is no agreed definition of how to calculate and define cost pricing. It still allows alcohol to be sold very cheaply, given that the unit cost can be varied by the retailer depending on a number of factors. It is not clear that, if a below cost selling plan was put in place, it would be sufficient to reduce alcohol consumption and, therefore, would not necessarily have the desired impact. There are also difficulties in monitoring, compliance and securing convictions for below cost selling. In fact, if one looks back, this was one of the key reasons behind the repeal of the groceries order in 2006. Finally, the price is not linked to the strength of the drink as it does not relate to the number of units or grams of alcohol the drink contains. I appreciate the addition of the words “and very cheaply”, which will address my concerns and will achieve what I believe is everybody’s intention in this motion.

What has been said by all speakers is important. This is not just one measurement which looks at pricing. We need to look at culture as well as the enforcement of our current laws. There are many laws in place that can be enforced in regard to drink driving and many other issues. We must look at advertising and marketing, including social marketing. I was shocked to see that when my nephews are on YouTube and Facebook, they get very different advertisements to the ones I get. Twelve year olds are regularly seeing drinks advertising on their screens whereas I do not get these on my screen, which tells us something about who these products are being marketed at. It is also about protecting children who are indirectly impacted by alcohol. As noted in the motion, pricing is an issue in this regard.

In the cause of harmony in the House, I thank Members for working together. This is good for the Seanad. It should be a first step in addressing the harmful effects of alcohol and the price it has for us in Ireland.