Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015: Second Stage

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

Statements on Alcohol Consumption in Ireland

I was happy to swap with my colleague Senator Rónán Mullen because I would not have wished him to feel he was being silenced by not being able to contribute to the debate on the forthcoming referendum. I welcome Ms Suzanne Costello from Alcohol Action Ireland, who is in the Visitor’s Gallery.

I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, to the Seanad and applaud him for what he is doing in this area. I accepted an invitation from the Department of Health to attend a seminar entitled “Influencing Healthy Lifestyles: Nudging or Shoving? The Ethical Debate.” It was really informative, and I thank the Minister for extending the invitation to us.

The public health (alcohol) Bill 2015, as the Minister outlined, deals with labelling, minimum unit pricing, marketing, advertising sponsorship, availability and price-based promotions. The Joint Committee on Health and Children, chaired by our excellent Chairman, Deputy Jerry Buttimer, held a series of meeting on the subject and is finalising its report. The Minister came to the final hearing of this series of debates on the heads of the Bill to hear the views of the members. What the Minister said today in the Seanad shows me that he took on board a number of the committee’s sentiments with regard to the public health (alcohol) Bill. I thank him.

I note with sadness that according to the OECD report Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy, Ireland has the fourth highest level of alcohol consumption in the OECD, behind Estonia, Austria and France, at 11.7 litres per capitafor those aged 15 years and over. To be placed fourth in this category is not the position we want to hold on this league table.Several of my colleagues have referred to the executive summary of this OECD report, from which I will quote:

 

Alcohol has an impact on over 200 diseases and types of injuries. In most cases the impact is detrimental; in some cases it is beneficial. In a minority of drinkers, mostly older men who drink lightly, health benefits are larger. … Harmful drinking is normally the result of an individual choice, but it has social consequences. The harms caused to people other than drinkers themselves, including the victims of traffic accidents and violence, but also children born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, are the most visible face of those social consequences. Health care and crime costs, and lost productivity, are further important dimensions. These provide a strong rationale for governments to take action against harmful alcohol use.

 

People often talk about the consumption of alcohol by young people and children, but they do not necessarily refer to the impact of alcohol on children in families. We see the figures in reports on domestic violence. The example set by the parents’ lifestyle impacts on the household. Senator Colm Burke referred to the students who won the Young Scientist exhibition with their project entitled: “Does the apple fall far from the tree?”, who made a presentation to the Joint Committee on Health and Children. In their project they quoted from a recent ISPCC report in which one child noted: “If you see your parents get drunk, whether you like it or not, it will have an effect on your life.” What surprised me was that one fifth of parents surveyed were not concerned about the prospect of another parent or adult supplying their adolescent with alcohol. That shows me how normal it is for adolescents to drink alcohol. If the adults in these young people’s lives think it is acceptable to buy a young person alcohol, it shows how much needs to be done in informing and educating the adults as well. We have to focus on young people. There is an issue with young people and alcohol which is European-wide, but, as the saying goes, they do not lick it off the ground. The adults in their lives are the role models and they very often set the norms. It is the norm for adults to go to the pub to socialise. We do not have other avenues. We need to ensure we have other avenues and that we provide other examples for our young people.

I fully endorse minimum unit pricing. The excellent report by Dr. John Holmes and Dr. Colin Angus from the University of Sheffield is comprehensive and goes through everything. They have been very open. I have gone back and forth to them with questions and they have been open about addressing any concerns we have. I would be very happy to share this report with colleagues.

I am concerned that the code of practice must be placed on a very strong footing. I have observed how the drinks industry can find every loophole in the system. Could we look at the threshold for the audience profile measurement, which stands at 25% at present? That is far too high. It should be at 10%. I would prefer if there was no alcohol advertising, but at the very least we need to reduce the level of advertising. I raised the issue of online marketing at the committee hearings. We know that some years ago Diageo announced that 21% of its marketing budget would go to online marketing. Recently legislation was introduced in Finland to ban alcohol apps that contained games, location settings and information on the nearest place to drink. Clearly, these apps are targeted at children. It is a social engagement. As my colleagues have said, a young person who visits YouTube will see advertisements for alcohol that I do not see. The drinks industry is very skilled at targeting particular groups. They know what sites and YouTube videos people are looking at, and the advertising is targeted at them. I have seen the effects of this at first hand. If I walk into any classroom and ask children to name their favourite advertisement on television, I guarantee that alcohol advertisements are up there in their choice. The young people score highly on brand recognition.

This brings me to the issue of sports sponsorship. I really believe we should set a date, no matter how far forward it is, to cease all alcohol-related advertising. It is very telling that neither the drinks industry nor the sports organisations will tell us how much sports sponsorship is worth. We do not have a figure. I think that is unacceptable that we do not know what we are talking about. Youth organisations which do so much voluntary work across the country will not take a single cent from the drinks industry, and I do not see the Government being put under pressure to replace it. In fact, the funding of youth organisations was cut by 40% during the recession, yet these organisations are still delivering those services. I acknowledge that some sporting organisations have stopped taking money from the drinks industry, but the sporting organisations who are still taking sponsorship money should let us know how much we are talking about. Last year, a school principal from Munster spoke at an Alcohol Action Ireland hearing on the issue of sports sponsorship. When Munster won what in France is called the H Cup, he invited the team to visit the school and he was delighted a few team members said they would go. They had a great day, but when they arrived with all the sponsorship and drinks advertising, he realised that he, as the principal of the school, had brought alcohol advertising to the school and he apologised to his students for doing so.

How the drinks industry has a handle on us is subliminal and insidious. It is unacceptable and we need to examine it. At a recent hearing, Katherine Brown of the Institute of Alcohol Studies stated alcohol sponsorship of sport is a way past children’s bedroom doors because they have a picture of a sporting hero on the bedroom door with the nice alcohol branding linking it to sporting success. She stated that if we are really serious, we need to tackle and deal with the issue of separation.

We also need to address the drinks industry role in decisions taken. I am concerned when I see jobs advertised by certain drinks companies. According to the job descriptions, they want to stay one step ahead of regulatory developments. They want to ensure they can beat the system. They will tell us it is all about education and if we were all more informed, we would all make the choices. I know about education, healthy eating and lifestyle. I am not as good as I should be because it is not what changes my behaviour. This is where legislation is important and why the Minister has my absolute and full support. I want us to go further and to do more. I want us to follow policies like that recently announced by the HSE, whereby it will have no truck with the alcohol industry. Why are the Departments of Education and Skills and Health not coming out with similar statements? The Child and Family Agency is thinking about it. It should have no truck with the drinks industry. We must do a lot more in Ireland.

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”