Seanad debates

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015: Second Stage


10:30 am

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister and thank him for publishing the Bill. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Health and Children which examined the heads of the Bill. We engaged in a consultation process and a number of groups made submissions on the legislation. Members of the medical profession, the drinks industry and advertising and sport bodies made their views known. This Bill is the best way to deal with the issues we face.

It has been alleged that the measures will cause difficulties for people on lower incomes. It is recommended that people should limit the number of units of alcohol they drink weekly to 17 for men and 11 for women. Minimum pricing would result in a weekly increase in costs for a person adhering to this recommendation of approximately 30 cent per week or €1.20 per month. These figures refer to people who are buying alcohol in off-licences.

The issue we must consider is the impact of alcohol on health in the past 20 years. As the Minister noted, four in ten drinkers binge drink in Ireland. A goal has been set of reducing annual alcohol consumption in Ireland from 11 litres per person to 9.1 litres per person. Professor Frank Murray pointed out that excessive drinking is costing taxpayers approximately €3.7 billion per annum. It is estimated that an 8.8% reduction in consumption would save 100 lives per annum, result in 6,000 fewer hospital admissions and reduce by 100,000 the number of daily absences from work caused by excessive drinking.

One of the frightening figures produced by the medical profession is that one in four deaths among people aged under 50 years is directly related to excessive use of alcohol. We are all aware of the figures on the number of deaths in road traffic accidents. Road safety has been comprehensively addressed in the past ten or 15 years, although work remains to be done in this area. However, we have not dealt with alcohol consumption. This Bill marks the first step in doing so. It covers a wide range of areas and includes a long-term plan for alcohol advertising and labelling. It addresses all the areas that need to be addressed to make people more aware of the risks they take when they use alcohol excessively. For example, alcohol poses risks to pregnant women and the child they are carrying. It took a long time to sell the message that drink-driving poses major risks. Likewise, it will take many years to change attitudes to alcohol.

As someone who lives close to a university, it is interesting to note how the behaviour of young people has changed in the past 15 or 20 years. Four pubs within a half-mile radius of University College Cork have closed in recent years, whereas the number of off-licences increased dramatically in the same period. People who drink in a pub know exactly what amount they have consumed because it is provided in measures. When one buys alcohol in an off-licence and drinks it at home, there are no measures or limits, which results in people taking serious risks.

It is interesting to speak to members of the medical profession about this issue. They highlight a major increase in cases of liver and kidney disease in the past 20 years, especially among women. The increase in health problems among women caused by excessive drinking is the result of a change in culture in the past 20 or 25 years. This long overdue Bill addresses these issues in a comprehensive manner.There has been extensive consultation in all of the various areas that will be affected by the legislation. We are speaking about setting out a timeframe for its implementation. The Minister is approaching it in the right way. It is about making sure that we progress the legislation and carefully implement it step by step to ensure we get across the message that people can drink but they do not have to drink to excess. Health issues are extremely important as there is a huge cost to the health service. As we speak, 2,000 beds are occupied in hospitals because of excess use of alcohol. This area is a priority and the Minister is right to bring forward the legislation, which deserves our full support.


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