Seanad debates

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Alcohol Consumption in Ireland: Statements


2:30 pm

Photo of John GilroyJohn Gilroy (Labour) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister. When I turned on the television a week or so ago to flick through what was on, I came across an incredibly named programme called "Drunk History" on one of the British cable channels. The format of the programme involved some comedians, or so-called comedians, discussing history while drunk. I do not know who thought comedians discussing history could be entertaining, but it reaches an incredulous level when they do so while drunk. I thought it was a remarkable concept, but loads of people to whom I spoke about it afterwards did not find it remarkable at all.

Senator Craughwell will remember with joy the night the Water Services Bill 2014 passed through this House. We were here until approximately 3.30 a.m. I think it was a Thursday night around Christmas. I was driving home to the south side afterwards. As I drove around St. Stephen's Green at approximately 3.30 a.m. I was amazed to see the number of people out on the street. I was perplexed to see that they were not ordinarily drunk but were staggering around the place. When I stopped at traffic lights near Leeson Street, a fellow sat into my car because he thought it was a taxi. He was very nice. He was a grand young fellow. When I said that my car was not a taxi, he got out. I got caught at the lights again when I was driving near Kevin Street. Another fellow approached and tried to get into my car. I hoped the lights would change quickly. They changed just as he got to my car, so he gave it a kick. He bashed in the back door of the car. It was pure drunkenness. I could scarcely believe it. That is the state of Irish society. I must say that the majority of the people who were drinking on St. Stephen's Green that night were not teenagers, as we might expect. It was remarkable to note that they were in their late 20s and early 30s.

I would like to put our problem into a historical context. Literary references going back to the earliest times are peppered with references to feasting and drinking. We know there were 8,000 illegal whiskey houses, and a further 8,000 which were actually legal, in Ireland in the 18th century. They were selling poitín and all sorts. The saturation of Irish society with alcohol is not a new thing. In the middle of the 19th century, Fr. Mathew, who was a Corkman, initiated a crusade against another saturation of Irish society with alcohol. I wonder whether it is for reasons of moral panic that alcohol seems to have been emphasised as the cause of all problems at various times in history. During the Celtic revival of the 1900s, alcohol did not seem to be pointed to or remarked on as a major problem. After the independence of this State had been achieved, writers like JP Donleavy, Flann O'Brien, Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan, who were part of the Irish literary scene of the 1940s and 1950s, almost defined our view as a society of what alcohol is. This is the context of the problem we have. We are not at the end of history now. We are right in the middle of history. The roll of history will not stop here at our generation. It has not stopped at any other generation. Unless we are very ambitious in our view of what is required to tackle this problem, it will just continue on. Regarding our modern-day views of alcohol, the two biggest state visits to this country in recent years were the visits of Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth in 2011. Mr. Obama was filmed holding a pint in Moneygall. That was the first iconic shot of him. The Queen was brought to the Guinness Storehouse. The two pictures that were sure to go all the way around the world were associated with alcohol. This is the fair context with which the Minister must grapple.

We must identify the nature of the problem so that we can understand what kind of response is needed. A proper analysis of the problem will reveal the outcome we want to achieve. There are two real arguments in this context. I have had these arguments with several people in recent days. I have to say the nanny state argument, which refers to personal responsibility, the right to choice and competition law, is a legitimate one for the vast majority of people. The other argument is the public good or public health policy argument. We need to make these sorts of choices. It is the analysis we accept that will determine which way we are going to go. The social harms associated with alcohol are 100% clear. Senator Mullen referred to a few of them and cited a few statistics. I do not really want to contradict what he was saying, because he is probably right, but I should point out that his suggestion that alcohol is associated with 70% of suicides is probably wrong. Issues like depression and anxiety must also be taken into account. Perhaps this points to the complexity of the argument. Alcohol is definitely associated with suicide, but is it a causal factor? I have been a psychiatric nurse for nearly 30 years and I have seen through the mental health service the effects of alcohol abuse and misuse. I believe, as sure as I am standing here, that alcohol gives action to thoughts. That is almost a mantra among mental health nurses of my generation. This element needs to be examined. Does alcohol cause suicide, depression or other mental health disorders? Are people who suffer from mental health disorders more prone to abusing alcohol? We must determine these things before we can make definitive statements on them. As a Government and as a Legislature, we must look at alcohol policy.The policy must deal with the framework in which strategies on alcohol are delivered. It is up to the experts and people working on the framework to produce the strategies that we are talking about.

Myths and mischief are being put into the public arena in support of each side of the argument on the economic costs of alcohol use. One of the myths is that the Government is quite happy to continue accepting the excise revenue generated by alcohol sales. I have heard that a million times, as I am sure every Member here has. The economic cost of alcohol misuse and abuse in Irish society is in the region of €3.7 billion, whereas the tax revenue generated by alcohol is a fraction of that, not even a quarter. This is a myth that must be put to bed before proper argument can take place.

When representatives of the drinks industry appeared before the Joint Committee on Health and Children last year, every single spokesperson said that his or her company was not interested in increasing the volume of sales as a whole and that its advertising strategies were aimed only at capturing sales from its competitors. That is nonsense. There is no way any company would spend millions on marketing unless it was trying to attract new customers, as opposed to persuading customers to change their brand.

We can see how sensitive the market is to price change. We have seen the impact of VAT changes in the early 1990s which resulted in a substantial decrease in sales of alcohol. The onset of the recession also resulted in a further fall in sales, as the Minister mentioned in his speech, but as incomes improve and are restored, sales of alcohol creep up again.

In light of the context in which we are working, I welcome all of the measures the Minister referred to in his speech, including minimum pricing, health labelling, control of marketing, advertising and structural separation. All of these measures are important, but I do not think they will work on their own unless we can effect a cultural change, which will probably be done over a generation.

There is a great deal of talk about sports sponsorship by the alcohol industry. While we all agree that it should not happen, in order to get stakeholders to buy into such a change, we cannot scrap sponsorship by alcohol companies without putting in place some income stream to replace the money that will be lost from the ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport.


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