Tuesday, 12 May 2015
Alcohol Consumption in Ireland: Statements
I apologise for missing the beginning of the debate. I had planned a commitment around the schedule as it was. It is a debate that I definitely wanted to be here for, and I regret that I missed part of it, but I managed to have a look at the Minister's speech.
This discussion often comes up in a fragmented form - sometimes there is a lack of a more cohesive approach - and I welcome this debate from that point of view. When we think of alcohol consumption in Ireland, it is in the context of a number of debates which happen regularly throughout the Oireachtas and in the media. These include discussions about over-consumption on certain public holidays, which always raises a few voices in here; the interaction between alcohol companies and responsible drinking campaigns; sponsorship of both the arts and sport by alcohol companies, on which I would concur with the comments of colleagues; minimum pricing of alcohol; changes to how alcohol is labelled - I agree strongly with the suggestion that alcohol should be labelled properly, as food producers must put every minute detail on labels whereas the producers of alcohol do not seem to be required to put any detail whatsoever on their bottles; alcohol and public health; and creating a physical separation between alcohol and other goods in supermarkets. The list goes on and on, and often these debates are treated in isolation. However, I believe there is real value in discussing alcohol consumption in Ireland and highlighting a number of these aspects under that broad setting, including what we as policy makers can do to discourage excess consumption.
As the Minister stated in his speech, Ireland came second in the WHO European region with regard to binge drinking, with 39% of the population misusing alcohol in this manner monthly. Moreover, the Health Research Board's alcohol diary survey found that more than half of all adult drinkers in the population are harmful drinkers. More than 150,000 people are dependent drinkers, while more than 1.35 million are drinking in a harmful manner - an increasing number of these being women.
According to experts at a recent Alcohol Action Ireland conference, women are now partaking in binge drinking in disproportionately large numbers. In fact, Irish women are drinking at least twice the amount they did in the 1960s. Alcohol consumption amongst men is flatlining while women's consumption is soaring, which may account for some of the statistics. I caught the end of Senator Barrett's comments, and I have heard him speak about that previously. It does not make any sense to me. I would agree with a lot of what Senator Craughwell stated. Whatever the statistics are, one does not need them in one's pocket to see on the streets that we are drinking in a harmful way.
Alcohol Action Ireland also calculated that alcohol-related harm costs the State an estimated €3.7 billion annually, with €2.4 billion of that figure accounted for by health and crime-related costs alone. This is an alarming figure by anyone's standards, and is a large percentage of GDP. It is clear that we need to frame any debate on alcohol policy in Ireland in this context.
In the context of this, the public health (alcohol) Bill will be most welcome. One of the more talked-about aspects of the proposed Bill, about which no doubt other Senators have spoken, is the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing, to which the Government long ago committed itself. As Senators will be aware, this is a targeted measure designed to stop strong alcohol from being sold at a very low price in the off-trade, particularly in supermarkets, where alcohol is frequently used as a loss leader and sold below cost. I have consistently stated on the issue that the Government must keep the pressure on these measures and continue to push ahead with the alcohol legislation, as it is both long overdue and urgently needed.
I am proud of the commitment we have made with regard to the minimum pricing of alcohol. One aspect which has been very much overlooked is the crucial Northern Ireland aspect. The Minister said there was an agreement with Northern Ireland that similar measures would be introduced at the same time so that a cross-Border trade in cheap alcohol would not develop. This vital part has been overlooked in much of the commentary on the issue and I believe it is an important element of what is a well thought-out piece of strategy.
Minimum pricing allows us to target cheaper alcohol relative to its strength, because the price is determined by and directly proportionate to the amount of alcohol in the product. This is important, as these strong and cheap drinks are the alcohol products favoured by two at-risk groups: the heaviest drinkers among us, about whom Senator Craughwell spoke movingly, who generally seek to get as much alcohol as they can for as little money as they can and are most at risk of alcohol-related illnesses and death; and young people, who generally have the least disposable income, who are price-sensitive and who have the highest prevalence of binge drinking, as well as a greater risk from alcohol harm, as their bodies and brains are still developing.
Other elements of the public health (alcohol) Bill include health labelling and warnings, including calorie counts, and it will also be illegal to market alcohol in a manner that is appealing to children. At one stage or another, I have called in this Chamber for every aspect of the proposed Bill, and I compliment the Minister on it. However, a crucial issue, on which I might touch briefly, which was brought to my attention recently and which has not been widely discussed, is that of unregulated digital marketing of alcohol. According to Dr. Pat Kenny, a lecturer in DIT, this form of marketing is going completely under the radar. Apparently, Diageo has allocated 21% of its marketing budget to digital marketing. In effect, young people are being recruited to market alcohol to their peers via social media. Interestingly, Finland has introduced a ban on digital alcohol marketing to add to its existing regulations.
I had loads more to say. Given the challenges we face, I believe serious action is needed across the board, and the public health (alcohol) Bill is certainly one large component of this. However, we also need to be looking to further measures, as the cost to individuals and to the well-being of the nation is far greater than many understand it to be.