Tuesday, 12 May 2015
Alcohol Consumption in Ireland: Statements
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. At this point I wish to thank my colleague, Senator Jillian van Turnhout for a very collegiate offer in allowing me to speak ahead of her because I have to take part in a debate this evening with Senator Lorraine Higgins which has been organised by NUI Galway, our alma mater, on the referendum. There is possibly such a thing as binge debating but I wish to thank Senator van Turnhout. Given how seriously she takes her brief, she would want to be here for the entire debate. I will make it my business to check the record of the Minister's comments afterwards. I apologise that I cannot stay until the conclusion of the debate.
I welcome this debate very much as an opportunity to listen to the Government's plans and to commend the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, on being so active in this area. It is beyond dispute that we need much more regulation in this area to improve public health. The planned public health (alcohol) Bill aims to put in place minimum pricing and will regulate alcohol advertising and sponsorship targeted at young people. Creidim féin go láidir go bhfuil sé thar am deireadh a chur le poiblíocht, bolscaireacht agus urraíocht ó chomhlachtaí alcóil atá dírithe ar an aos óg.
I also welcome that it is the Government's intention to give grants to communities to tackle alcohol and drug abuse. As the Minister pointed out, there is a link between economic recovery and alcohol abuse. An EU report published last year comparing health care across the European Union has found us to have the fifth highest alcohol consumption in the EU. We also have the joint third highest prevalence rates for obesity among our adult population. These are massive problems that have some inter-relation and it is possibly worth our while and we should be doing all we can to make the public more aware of that link.
The Minister highlighted the influence on crime of alcohol abuse. Research has linked increased alcohol consumption to increased levels of public order crime and other offences. Dr. Paul O'Mahoney of Trinity College raised an interesting point when he spoke about the changed nature of street crime. He said that people did not kick other people in the head 20 or 30 years ago. He said that there was an acceptance that it was a dangerous and cowardly thing to do, that one would have to be madcap to do it, but now, middle-class young people on booze and out of their heads routinely do it. We are all aware of famous fatalities that have occurred in recent years in that context.
We need to look at how alcohol impacts on mental health. The World Health Organization estimates that the risk of alcohol dependence in people diagnosed with schizophrenia is three times the average population risk. For people diagnosed with depression and affective disorders it is 1.9 times the average risk. In people diagnosed with anxiety the risk of alcohol dependence is 1.5 times higher. The World Health Organization also estimates that as many as 70% of male suicides are alcohol-related and this is a very important issue for us to emphasise in the context of our public discussions on both alcohol abuse and on suicide.
We have to be wary of increased illegal smuggling of alcohol and cross-Border shopping occurring when minimum pricing is introduced. That is why I welcome the Minister's indication of the forthcoming co-operation between the Department of Health and authorities in the North on this issue. It seems to me that if there was any kind of a time lag in arrangements to be made that it could cause particular problems with alcohol being cheaper across the Border for a time period.
Supermarkets and off-licence sales now account for a massive proportion of all alcohol sales. I wonder whether it should be considered that offers involving multiple bottles of wine, for example, for a certain price should be restricted so that offers can only relate to the selling of an individual quantity. Otherwise, it is an encouragement of unnecessary or quantity-based drinking, binge drinking in other words. I refer to the Minister speaking about reducing the amount of alcohol that people drink. It seems counter-intuitive to challenge the culture of the pint in Ireland. It is normal on the Continent to order a half pint even if this is uncommon here. A licensing amendment came into force in England a few years ago allowing premises to sell two thirds of a pint size. It was believed that this would help to encourage more responsible drinking and some drinking companies have seen the potential.I almost hesitated to propose it to the Minister until my colleague, Senator Craughwell, reminded me that "deorum", which is such a famous word in the vocabulary of our beloved native Galway, is not only a reference to a quantity of whiskey but is also potentially a reference to a quantity of beer somewhere between half a pint and a full pint. Perhaps it could be quantified as three quarters of a pint, which Senator Craughwell informs me might also be known as a "maydium". Maybe there is potential here for trying to move tentatively, but with determination at the same time, against the culture of the pint.
Perhaps we should also look at the link between alcohol and politics. We know about the link between alcohol and sports. In Australia, the state parliament of New South Wales has approved legislation banning donations to political parties from the alcohol, gambling and tobacco industries. While I suspect that politicians would take a degree of care not to be seen to accept such donations, perhaps some formalisation of our anathema in this regard would be appropriate.
I understand the Minister aims to limit alcohol advertising to children. I am sure he knows as well as I do, or better than I do, how difficult this might be. Children of any age with access to YouTube can instantly view alcohol-related content. According to one piece of research, an average of 6% of views of adult-oriented content are by 13 to 17 year olds. We should consider carefully the report that a major drinks company saw a 20% increase in sales as a result of Facebook activity in one year. Does the Minister have anything to say at this point or at a later stage about what the Government might be able to do to tackle online advertising of alcohol to children? I would certainly be interested to hear about any such plans. Is there any possibility in this respect? I realise that it would be difficult.
I will conclude by asking the Minister about labelling, which he mentioned in his speech in the context of content and health. When I was speaking to a publican recently, he pointed out to me that if he is caught selling alcohol to someone who is under age, the consequences for him financially and reputationally are very severe. As a member of the community in which the pub is located, the publican's name would be dirt. The same publican made the point that binge drinkers generally do not purchase their alcohol in pubs and are much more likely to get it from supermarket multiples or off-licences. They enjoy complete anonymity, in a sense, in the context of the abuse of alcohol. Given that it is possible to label alcohol in various ways, perhaps there should be a legal requirement for the immediate source of alcohol - bottles or cans - to be subject to labelling. This would mean that if alcohol bottles were found in a public park, there would be some evidence of where they were purchased. I do not propose these things lightly because I realise that all such potential measures involve a degree of planning and possibly a degree of expense. I would like to know if it is something that could be looked at. It is not so much a matter of protecting the reputation of publicans, although that is no bad thing in itself if they are acting responsibly. More importantly, it could act as a deterrent to those who would sell alcohol in an irresponsible way. In other words, it would be helpful if we had a means of detecting the point of sale where the alcohol was purchased. Perhaps this is something the Government has considered. Maybe there are many reasons to dismiss the idea. I would be grateful to hear the Minister's views on it. I thank him for listening and I thank the Chair for his indulgence.