Tuesday, 12 May 2015
Alcohol Consumption in Ireland: Statements
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I compliment him on not pulling any punches. What he has outlined amounts to a shocking indictment of our society. Issues surrounding the abuse of alcohol come up for debate in virtually every element of the work we do as legislators. We are talking about health issues, crime issues, anti-social behaviour, economic issues and many other matters. In many cases, it takes an extreme case to regenerate the debate, but the time comes when we must cry "Stop". We all know full well that the drinks industry is an exceptionally strong lobby. When radical measures were formulated in the past, they tended to fall short precisely because of the power of the industry.
The Minister outlined the damage alcohol misuse is causing to society, including children. There is no doubt that children are the main victims of the abuse of alcohol in homes and elsewhere. That alone should be sufficient to make us more determined and courageous than we ever have been before on this issue. There is no person in this House who has not witnessed anti-social behaviour arising from excessive consumption of alcohol. At times it can be absolutely frightening and those involved have respect for nobody. That type of behaviour has reached such an extreme that it now features on a weekly television programme which shows what happens when people go boozing at home or abroad. When we see on our television screens what happens after the nightclubs are closed, it underlines the seriousness of where we are.
We are told that 2,000 hospital beds are occupied every night by people with alcohol problems. The HSE has indicated that in 2007 alcohol-related problems cost the State €3.7 billion, which equates to more than €3,000 for every taxpayer in the country. Alcohol has an involvement, we are told, in half of the suicides in this country. We were all shocked by the epidemic of suicides we saw in recent years and we mourn for the young people whose lives are cut short unnecessarily and the impact this has on families.
Some of the stories we are hearing about the behaviour of our young people abroad are a cause for great concern.The number of young Irish people who are letting down the side through excessive drinking and extreme anti-social behaviour in Australia is attracting many column inches in newspapers and featuring on television. While I am prepared to accept that much of what we have heard may not be correct, Irish people will always be in the spotlight when alcohol-related issues arise because of the caricature that has evolved over decades, if not centuries, of Irish people being prone to excessive drinking. St. Patrick's Day never passes without disruption and the necessity to take the most extreme measures to avoid riots on the streets. The same could be said of many other festivals.
I listened this morning to a radio interview with a group of school students who, by my reckoning, were aged not more than 15 or 16 years. The discussion was proceeding in a very casual manner when the interviewer asked about activities and sport. Responding to a question about the training regime for a specific sport, one of the youngsters stated that drinking was banned until the games were over and training had finished. The interviewer's response, which was appropriate, was to ask whether drinking at such a young age was the right thing to do. A survey carried out some years ago in a locality that I will not mention showed that a large percentage of 13 year old children were drinking spirits.
I recall the challenges and hullabaloo that followed when it was proposed to take action on smoking. Many lobby groups came to the fore arguing that we were creating a nanny state and infringing people's rights. We had to bring home to people the message that every second smoker was likely to die from a tobacco related disease and it took a long time to get it through. Opponents of the ban on smoking in public places stated they would fight the measure and, as usual, the lobby groups stated they would oppose any restriction on advertising.
In complimenting the Minister, I noted that he did not pull any punches. There is little or no difference between the alcohol-related and tobacco-related problems we face. As I pointed out, alcohol and tobacco raise health, economic and anti-social issues. While I appreciate the difficulties facing the Minister, we should immediately cut the cord between the drinks industry and sport, even if this means the State must intervene to provide some finance to sporting organisations. There is little point speaking about young people when our sporting heroes are carrying the flag for the drinks industry. Sport should not carry any advertising for the drinks industry.
The number of deaths caused by alcohol and the manner in which young people are being exploited and undermined are an indictment of society. Why should we allow drink to be advertised and glamorised to suggest to young people that they should drink? I accept it will be difficult to take the serious action needed in this regard, as it was when the smoking ban was introduced. However, if we accept the veracity of the statistics provided by the Minister, we must meet this problem head on. I wish the Minister well in this regard and acknowledge that he faces a difficult problem. The issue is not one of social drinking because social drinkers are very often the victims of excessive abuse of alcohol.
We must take on all of those who, despite the statistics, wish to continue to exploit Irish people and their international reputation and see deaths result from the abuse of alcohol. This is one of the major issues of the day and every bit as big as many economic issues facing us. Until we are prepared to say "Enough is enough", we will continue to apply a sticking plaster and fail to change our culture.