I welcome the Minister to the House on this, our penultimate day of term. I heartily welcomed the initiation of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. As did Senator Burke, I participated in the hearings of Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children on the scrutiny of the heads of the Bill. We covered the aspects of the Bill and I thank the Minister for taking on many of the committee’s recommendations in what we see today. It does show pre-legislative scrutiny works. The Bill is about reducing alcohol-related harm, improving people’s health and, ultimately, saving children’s lives. From my reading, a children’s rights focus is evident throughout the Bill.
I acknowledge and thank the Alcohol Health Alliance Ireland, which is spearheaded by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and Alcohol Action Ireland, for its work and advice to me in this area. In all of our debates on alcohol, even those on reducing the alcohol-related harm which we all agree is extensive and needs tackling, we feel we need to clarify that we are not anti-alcohol. This is because our relationship with alcohol is so twisted into our culture and psyche we do not wish to be portrayed as judgmental and anti-fun. I have been rapporteur for two EU reports on the issue of alcohol-related harm. I have seen the drinks industry in action first-hand so I have no doubt of the pressure it must have put on the Minister. At EU level, I was on the European Economic and Social Committee, which was small, and the industry tried to silence me and discredit me and undermine the work of the NGO for which I worked. Thankfully, the majority of my colleagues on the committee were willing to stand with me and face down the vested interests and defend the public good. This is what we are trying to do with the Bill.
My entry point to the issue is the impact of alcohol-related harm on children. Four in ten children in Ireland are at risk of being adversely affected by alcohol misuse. Four in ten child protection cases are associated with alcohol misuse. It is a significant contributor to the neglect and abuse of children, to domestic and sexual violence and family breakdown. I welcome the support for the Bill and its harm reduction measures from several sectors of the industry in Ireland, including the vintners’ associations, the majority of publicans, the National Off-Licence Association and the C&C Group.
I use the term “drinks industry” but I speak more about the giants who see Ireland as a small pawn in the global drinks industry. The drinks industry speaks about responsible drinking, but the way we drink in Ireland is only responsible for the huge profits the industry makes here every year. As soon as the Minister launched the Bill I could almost hear the smoke machine of the drinks industry spluttering into action and, through its puppet drinkaware.ie, a soon to be launched rebranding of MEAS, talk about the importance of education. We see drinks industry initiatives all the time and the involvement of the drinks industry in public health campaigns despite clear and definitive statements from the World Health Organization that it should have no role in public health initiatives.
Drinkaware.ie is funded by Diageo, Heineken and Irish Distillers. Earlier this year we saw it advertise for an education programme manager to head up an education programme targeting young people, parents and teachers. This is completely inappropriate. If I put it this way, who would entertain the idea of an education programme about the dangers of smoking being designed and delivered by an organisation that is funded by tobacco companies? We cannot let the drinks industry in whatever guise it manifests itself to go into schools and purport to educate our children about the usage of a substance on which its entire profit is made. I hope the Department of Education and Skills takes a firm stance. I have tried to raise this issue several times in the Seanad. There is no safe level of alcohol consumption for children and this is the clear message we must send. We know education informs our behaviour, but it does not influence our behaviour. It is the actions contained in the Bill which will change and reduce alcohol consumption.
I have no doubt that, as has happened in Scotland, the industry will go to court if it feels it can delay or frustrate the implementation of the Bill. In my opinion, this tells us the Minister is on the right track. With regard to sponsorship and sport, the drinks industry spends £800 million a year in the UK on advertising, and research has shown that children there as young as ten are familiar with, and can readily identify, alcohol brands, logos and characters from television. In many instances, recognition was greater for alcohol brands than for non-alcoholic products targeted at children. This tells me a lot. The study also provided new evidence that many children are familiar with the link between alcohol brands and the sports teams and tournaments they sponsor. This is why I welcomed the initiatives the Minister is taking. He knows my position, which is I would love to see a full ban, but I welcome what he is doing in this area to try to reduce the impact on children.
It was very interesting that in the days after the Bill was launched we saw a headline stating it would undermine the rugby World Cup. I cannot see the evidence for this. We have seen the rugby World Cup successfully held in France, which has a ban, and it made a profit. It made me think of FIFA, because it has influenced legislation in Brazil. Brazil has a law whereby alcohol is not sold in stadia, but a change will be made to enshrine the right to sell beer. Surprise, surprise, Budweiser is a big sponsor of FIFA. When the ban on tobacco sponsorship of sport was introduced we were told it would be the end of golf championships, and we would never see again championships such as the Carrolls Irish open. This has been disproved. It can still happen.
With regard to minimum unit pricing, over the past several years the alcohol strength of drinks has increased greatly. The alcohol strength of beers and wine has increased. The pricing the Minister will introduce is within the power of the drinks industry. If it reduces the alcohol strength we will not see price increases. It is simple because it has the power. The introduction of minimum unit pricing will not have an impact on people who drink alcohol in pubs, clubs and restaurants. We are speaking about off sales. People who drink alcohol purchased in supermarkets and consume it within the safe limits will pay 30 cent a week more, which is €15.70 over a full year, with minimum unit pricing. The difficulty is that people drinking cheap high-strength alcohol purchased in supermarkets and other retailers will notice, but we know this is what causes the most deaths, injuries, accidents and incidents. I recommend as reading the University of Sheffield report, which the committee dealt with during its hearings. We know minimum unit pricing works because we have seen it work in Canada.
I welcome what the Minister is doing with labelling. We very much see the importance of people having information. After we discussed it at the committee, we started looking more at labelling on bottles and we can see the misinformation, deliberate or not. It is very difficult to make informed decisions. For the first time, labels on alcohol products will include information which will tell consumers what they are consuming and the impact on their health and weight. More than 90% of Irish adults do not know what is meant by a standard drink. I must look it up and I am involved in the area. A total of 95% of people have said they support the labelling initiatives. The Minister knows I have raised with him the issue of cancer, and we know that alcohol is associated with 900 new cancer cases every year and 500 cancer deaths.
There is an issue with regard to structural separation, which the committee considered and brought to the Minister. I have read the explanatory memorandum which comes with the Bill. The Minister is taking a very pragmatic and easily implemented approach and I commend him for it. We have seen seepage in supermarkets with meal deals which normalise drinking wine every day. I commend the Minister on the pragmatic approach being taken. We will get to tease out each aspect of the report on Committee Stage and I say “Well done” to the Minister in respect of the children’s clothing issue also. We see the seepage on that matter throughout department stores. The Minister has my full support.
Full debate https://www.kildarestreet.com/sendebates/?id=2015-12-17a.93&s=jillian+van+turnhout#g103