Alcohol Consumption: Statements

17th October 2012

I will try to be succinct. I have five specific questions to ask the Minister of State but first I wish to comment briefly on the issue. I am speaking as a Senator, as a children’s rights activist and as a proud Irish citizen. My first concern relates to the social and cultural acceptability of our excessive alcohol usage. It disturbs me how frequently and casually excessive drinking and being hungover are spoken about on the national airwaves, in the media and in discourse following sports events and other everyday conversations. For example, we use such expressions as “How’s the head?” and “I’m dying” and “It is the Irish ‘flu”. This is acceptable discourse for us. We use these references and they are bandied about all the time. I am not trying to sound in any way pious and it is not that I have not misused alcohol myself but it is about the way we use these terms in common parlance. They are acceptable and tolerated. This is where I have a difficulty. We are sending mixed messages in our discourse on drinking. On the one hand there are drink awareness campaigns, especially those targeting young people. During the debate today I imagine we will refer to the scourge of binge drinking among young people and we will highlight the dangers of excessive drinking. On the other hand as adults we laugh it off. We are sending mixed messages.

Our international reputation as a nation of drinkers is seriously undesirable and is becoming increasingly so.

It is something that we should be working hard to overcome. While on holiday in the United States over the summer, I was shocked to see a T-shirt being sold in a tourist shop, among a number of T-shirts of a similar vein, depicting Irish yoga as a series of images of an extremely intoxicated man. I have a fairly healthy sense of humour but I did not find it funny. In fact, I was extremely embarrassed that this is the depiction, on several different types of T-shirt, of Ireland. There was nothing positive about that message.

There is an intrinsic link between excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm in Ireland. The negative impact, as has been testified to by the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, and by my colleagues before me, on individuals, on families and on the Exchequer and society at large can no longer be justified in terms of the revenue the alcohol sector generates in and for Ireland, or how our pub and craic culture attracts tourism. I grew up with a definition of the idea of craic culture being about music, friendship and great fun, but we seem to have redefined what it means and this is something that we must seriously question.

Alcohol has been identified as a contributory factor in 97% of public order offences and, according to international research, there is a link between increased alcohol consumption and increased levels of public order crime. Alcohol related crime will cost us €1.2 billion this year. All of us here could make a long list of what we would like to spend that €1.2 billion on, and that figure relates only to crime and not the associated health costs.

I had the honour to write two European reports as a rapporteur for the European Economic and Social Committee on the harmful effects of alcohol. Often the employers’ organisations would row in on the side of the drinks industry but, luckily, I was able to persuade many of my colleagues from the employers’ organisations to support me in my work. The figures, for example, for increased absenteeism, show it costs Ireland €1.5 billion a year, according to a recent survey by IBEC, the very organisation that supports the drinks manufacturing industry of Ireland. Employers need to wake up to the cost alcohol imposes. Alcohol is the primary reason for 4% of short-term absences from work by male employees and 1% by female employees. On the impact on health, every seven hours someone in Ireland dies from an alcohol-related disease and alcohol is a factor in up to one third of all deaths of unnatural causes. The figures are quite startling.

The Minister of State mentioned the indirect effects on children. Between 61,000 and 104,000 children aged under 15 in Ireland were estimated to be living with parents who misuse alcohol, one in 11 children is impacted negatively by parental alcohol problems and one in six cases of child abuse is attributed to alcohol. We really must wake up. I am glad the Minister of State said that he will bring back the proposals as soon as possible but there really is need for greater urgency.

I have the following five concluding points. First, the Minister of State mentioned the national substance misuse strategy. I draw his attention to the report on the misuse of alcohol and other drugs, which Senator Colm Burke mentioned, published in January last by the Joint Committee on Health and Children. We came up with 13 recommendations. They were debated heavily at the committee but the meeting was one of those good days in the Houses where all members were on the same side in trying to work out the best recommendations. There is cross-party consensus on those recommendations and I would bring the report to the Minister of State’s attention.

Second, there have been significant delays in the publication of both the alcohol action plan and the sale of alcohol Bill. They were expected in September and before the end of 2012, respectively. Can the Minister of State clarify when these will be published?

Third, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, was due to bring forward the recommendations of the RRAI voluntary code of conduct but he was also supposed to come back, prior to the summer recess, on section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008, which the Minister of State mentioned, which deals with the structural separation of alcohol from other products. The legislation is in place. It is a bizarre piece of legislation because the Minister has a choice when it comes to implementing it. I have never seen legislation that gives the Minister the choice. I think the Minister of State will find this interesting. I had to reread the legislation several times. I raised it here in the House with the Minister for Justice and Equality under an Adjournment matter. It is something that could be put into place now. We all talk about alcohol products straying into other parts of the supermarket but there is legislation to which we can give effect.

Fourth, given the legal challenge against minimum pricing being put to the Scottish Government, can the Minister of State clarify what changes in alcohol pricing will be introduced in Ireland and if minimum pricing cannot be introduced, will consideration be given to introducing a ban on below-cost selling?

Finally, a significant amount of work has been undertaken in Northern Ireland on alcohol advertising and price promotion. By the end of 2012, Northern Ireland will introduce additional regulations to ban certain irresponsible drink promotions that encourage excessive drinking and specified pricing practices. Further restrictions have also been proposed in Northern Ireland and are included in Scotland’s licensing law which are intended to prevent supermarkets and off-sale premises advertising school offers anywhere other than within a licensed area of their premises. The restrictions would also apply to other advertising material, such as newspapers, in-store magazines and leaflets. Will the Minister of State give consideration to introduce similar measures? It is my understanding that the legislation currently exists in the form of section 16 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 and these changes could be brought forward fairly quickly.

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