Alcohol Misuse

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 206 No. 1

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Senator Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, who has responsibility for children for coming to the House to respond.

The problem is we often blame alcohol abuse on children, but they are only following the example set by adults and what is considered normal in our culture. I am not a teetotaller, but I accept that we need to address the issue of alcohol pricing. The budget will be announced next week and many will say that, like cigarettes, we need to increase the cost of alcohol to minimise consumption. I come from a Border region and know there is a bigger issue which we need to try to address at British Isles level. If the United Kingdom and Ireland operated a similar system, we would be able to cope with it. I engaged in many debates last year, including on Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle, in which I raised the issue of a comparable VAT rate between Ireland and the United Kingdom and I was in the unusual position where I received [68]great support from the Unionist community. I thought it would challenge what I had to say on radio, but it agreed with me. Has there been any advance made on this issue? Have talks taken place with the United Kingdom and, in particular, the authorities in the North on alcohol pricing? People travel abroad to purchase alcohol, although it is more likely that people from the United Kingdom will travel to France in vans to purchase alcohol than it is for people to bring in substantial quantities of alcohol into Ireland by aeroplane.

I raise the issue of the labelling of alcohol products. Unlike the Minister of State and Senator MacSharry who do not have to worry about their weight, I fluctuate from one extreme to the other. When I am on a diet, I read the salt, calorie, sugar and saturated fat content on food products, but when it comes to alcohol, I am only aware of one product in respect of which it is stated it contains 28 calories per 100 ml. I can choose that product on a night out, or I can guess what other products contain. I have said previously that there is a market for diet alcohol which we are not exploiting. Recently I spoke to somebody at the Vintners Association of Ireland pre-budget briefing and was informed that there was available a light version of a product along the lines of Baileys which was being exported to America. There are research options for people to look at to give us a choice as when we are dieting, we not only worry about our food intake but also our alcohol consumption.

I received the Alcohol Action Ireland plan, Tackling the Financial Hangover: Pre Budget Submission, which states the average cost of alcohol per taxpayer is approximately €3,318. The cost to the State is estimated to be €3.7 billion; the cost to the health care system, €1.2 billion, and the cost in terms of crime, €1.2 billion. The figure in respect of road collisions is estimated to be €5.26 million, while the figure for lost output owing to absences from work is estimated to be €330 million.

We have a culture not of alcohol use but alcohol abuse with which we must deal. Alcohol is linked with every celebration, commemoration, etc. We must, therefore, be more coherent in the plans we adopt to tackle the issue. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response.

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Barry Andrews): Information on Barry Andrews Zoom on Barry Andrews I thank the Senator for raising this matter on the Adjournment which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney.

The House will be well aware of the harm caused by alcohol misuse in society. It would be simplistic to describe the problem as one related to under-age drinking. Most of the harm occurs among the adult population. It manifests itself, for example, in street violence, accidents, hospital admissions, drink driving, alcohol poisoning, suicides and alcohol dependency. Some of these problems arise where the light or moderate drinker drinks to excess on a single drinking occasion, while others result from regular heavy drinking over a longer period of time.

I would like to describe alcohol misuse in a health context. Alcohol causes twice as many deaths as all other drugs combined. One in four deaths among young men under the age of 34 years is due to alcohol compared with one in 12 deaths due to cancers and one in 25 due to circulatory disease. Suicide rates have doubled in the past 20 years. Alcohol is a factor in almost half of all young male suicides. It is also responsible for nearly one quarter of the injuries presenting to emergency treatment centres.

In order to tackle the problems associated with alcohol misuse, we need to take responsibility both collectively and individually. The social acceptance of alcohol in our society needs to be questioned. We also need to question what example we, as adults, are giving to our children and young people. The Government has acted and will continue to take the necessary steps to reduce the level of alcohol-related harm. To date, we have introduced mandatory alcohol test[69]ing of drivers, reduced the opening hours for the sale of alcohol in off-licences and supermarkets and implemented controls on the marketing of alcohol.

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The Government alcohol advisory group was set up in January 2008 to make recommendations to address the public order aspects of the licensing laws. The group’s recommendations formed the basis of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008. The introduction of the Act, which was conceived and passed within six months, has demonstrated this Government’s commitment to dealing with alcohol misuse. The Act contains provisions for reduced hours for off-sales of alcohol, tougher public order provisions allowing gardaí to seize alcohol from minors and for test purchasing of alcohol by persons under the age of 18. The Act requires applicants for a wine retailer’s off-licence to obtain a District Court certificate to obtain the licence. It has also attached stricter conditions to the granting of a special exemption order.

In March 2009 the Government agreed to include alcohol in a national substance misuse strategy that would be co-ordinated by the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. A steering group has been established to develop proposals on alcohol policy for an overall national substance misuse strategy that will incorporate the agreed drugs policy element. The steering group is being chaired jointly by the Department of Health and Children and the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for drugs. It will base its recommendations on effective evidence-based measures to deal with the significant public health issue of alcohol in areas such as supply, pricing, prevention, treatment, awareness and education. The steering group is working towards completing its report by the end of this year.

Alcohol labelling is one of the many issues being discussed by the steering group. The Department of Health and Children has indicated its intention to prepare proposals for legislation in this area. The intention is that health advice or warnings would be placed on alcohol drink containers, such as bottles and cans, as well as promotional materials. The health advice would include advice on the dangers of consuming alcohol in pregnancy. In addition, it is proposed to provide for the inclusion on the label of the amount of pure alcohol in grams contained in each bottle and can, etc. I look forward to the publication of the report from the national substance misuse strategy steering group which will advise the Government on the necessary policies and actions to be taken to reduce further the harm caused by alcohol misuse in society.

Senator Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney It is unbelievable that one in four deaths of young men is related to alcohol. In discussing labelling, I ask that when the legislation is forthcoming, we might talk about calorie content, which is a significant issue in people choosing products. It might sound silly but as a person who knows people who do much dieting, I know the calorie content is as important as anything else, such as the level of pure alcohol in the drink.

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