Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children

General Scheme of Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015: Discussion (Resumed)

9:30 am

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I hope I have jotted down all the questions and I am sorry if I miss any. The analysis of Deputy Ó Caoláin is totally correct. It is 11 litres per person, but that includes the whole population, including the 20% of people who are teetotallers. That brings the average down. We have a higher proportion of teetotallers than other countries. The intention is that the Bill will be published before the summer recess so that Members will be able to consider it over the recess and propose amendments, but that is not 100% under my control. Things can get held up at the Office of the Attorney General or the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, meaning that it has to go back to Cabinet and committee, so I cannot promise it, but that is what we are working towards. I want it to go through before this Dáil and Seanad end. A lot of work has been put into it and it would be a real shame if it fell to the next Dáil to start from scratch or look at it again.

Deputy Ó Caoláin made the point that a minimum unit price, MUP, may affect those on lowest incomes the most. There is a grain of truth in that because people on lower incomes are more likely to buy low-cost alcohol and are therefore more likely to be affected by this measure, though that depends on how much they drink. If they do not drink at all it does not affect them at all and if they drink a small amount it is only going to affect them to a small extent. The corollary of that, however, is that people on low incomes are more likely to abuse alcohol and there is a correlation between social class and alcohol abuse. Those on lower incomes and who are poorer are more likely to abuse alcohol. In many ways, alcohol contributes to poverty and poverty contributes to alcohol. Poverty might drive some people to alcohol and alcohol might cause poverty for others, because if one grows up in a household where one's parents abuse alcohol, surely one is much less likely to get a good start in life. If one drinks heavily in school or college one is not going to do as well. If one drinks as an adult one is going to miss work and is less likely to get promoted. There probably is a correlation between poverty and alcohol and between inequality and alcohol, so the fact that it may affect that group more in some ways strengthens the argument for it, not from the point of view of disposable income but from the point of view of public health.

Among the groups that can be counted as low income are students and children. Students and children do not have a lot of disposable cash and they buy really cheap alcohol with it, so it will affect them more, but it is kind of supposed to, as they are the ones who are most at risk of damaging their health, their mental health and everything else from alcohol consumption.

Senator van Turnhout and others asked about the code of conduct. At the moment the code of conduct is voluntary and not legally enforceable. That will be replaced by regulations, by statutory instruments, by law. It is not that we are going to put the code on a statutory footing, which, as the Senator will know from her experience with Children First, does not necessarily work anyway. It will be done by regulation and by law. It will not then be voluntary but will be legally enforceable, and there will be penalties. Even if the code is not changed - and I am not saying it cannot be strengthened - it will make a difference, because the current code is widely flouted. For example, one is not supposed to associate alcohol advertising with speed but that is done all the time. I am ashamed to admit I was at the Bavaria City Racing event. How could one associate alcohol with high speed to a greater extent than that? Some of the advertisements associate alcohol with sporting prowess - one drinks a certain beer and can throw a rugby ball or hit a light switch. That is a total violation of the code. A similar case is where a player is heading for the try line and the Guinness turns into a ball; he catches it and scores a try. If he has had that many pints he is not going to be good at the violin or score a try. In fact, he is more likely to drop the ball.

We will certainly examine the possibility of using online advertising and apps, and I would be interested if the Senator could give me more information on what they have done in Finland in that regard. I have a sense, though, that when it comes to online advertising we will only be able to deal with it on a European or an international level. It is, after all, the World Wide Web.

Enforcement will be carried out by environmental health officers. They are people who work for the HSE and are part of the health family. They go into restaurants and shut them down when there are hygiene issues and they are very effective. They go into the pubs and enforce the smoking ban, at which they are also pretty effective, and they also enforce the regulations around sunbeds. They will be given this additional, very important role on alcohol. They will need to be supported and to get an increase in resources. They are a good bunch of people. I do not think a lot of people around the country know what an environmental health officer is, but the job they do is enormously important and very valuable.

My understanding is that health labels will be dealt with by regulation and signed off by me as Minister in the same way as the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, signs off on road signs. I agree that they should probably include a warning about cancer, because alcohol is a major contributory factor in liver cancer, oesophageal cancer and so many other cancers.

Deputy Neville and Senator van Turnhout asked about the commencement of the existing section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008. That is legislation that belongs to the Department of Justice and Equality, so it would fall to the Minister for Justice and Equality to enact it. There are two reasons it has not been enacted six or seven years later. First, it is very onerous and requires a separate till and walls, which is perhaps is a little bit too onerous on some retail outlets. Second and more significantly, there is no enforcement mechanism. Even though it is a law, there are no powers to enforce it nor any penalties if it is breached, so it is an ineffectual piece of legislation and that is why it has not been commenced to date. We will either have to bring in a mechanism to enforce it or just replace it with a new piece of legislation.

Deputy Fitzpatrick asked about the cross-Border issue, about which I am very aware. We have a North-South sectoral meeting every four to six months with me, the Minister for Health, Mr. Jim Wells MLA and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly. It is a standing item on the agenda. We always ask how we are getting on with minimum unit pricing and we then have a discussion about it. We have discussed the price but have not agreed one.

Deputy McLellan asked about off-licences and their proximity to schools and crèches. That also falls under the Department of Justice and Equality and would be relevant to the sale of alcohol Bill and to licensing generally. I think it would be a difficult thing to do. I come from a very urban constituency and there is virtually nowhere that is not 100 m or 200 m from a crèche or a school. I would perhaps have to go to County Meath to buy a bottle of wine. One could put it at 50 m or maybe 60 m. One thing we will look at in that context, however, is whether we will allow advertising within a certain radius of a school. Again, that will be tricky.

In urban west Dublin and in many urban areas, schools and crèches are very numerous.

Changing the age of purchase to 21 would fall under the Department of Justice and Equality legislation. I would not be convinced as to whether raising the age to 21 would be a good idea and would have to see evidence to support it.

Deputy Creed spoke about sports sponsorship. The legislation deals with sports sponsorship by regulating and restricting it very heavily. However, we decided not to go for an outright ban for numerous reasons, most particularly that as no alternative funding source was identified, it would lead to a loss of income for sport which would then percolate down to local levels.


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