Thursday, 17 December 2015
Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister to the House. It is a very significant day when the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill comes into Seanad Éireann for discussion.Senator Barrett is a man whom I admire a lot. He usually speaks a lot of sense and has very good figures and statistics. However, I have to disagree with him fundamentally on this issue. He is probably right about elements of the revenue shift but it has long been recognised that, as a country, we have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. This is an opportunity for major discussion outside and within this House. It is a wake-up call for us all.
There are figures in the public domain. I acknowledge the wonderful work that has been done already in bringing this Bill to fruition. Much work has been done by the Minister, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, the Alcohol Health Alliance, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, Professor Frank Murray, and Alcohol Action Ireland under the leadership of Suzanne Costello and Catherine Keane. They have highlighted very significant areas about which we as legislators should be concerned. Around a thousand people per year lose their lives as a result of alcohol abuse. That is five times the number killed on the roads, although we speak very often here about the serious problem of road deaths. Some 2,000 hospital beds are occupied as a result of the abuse of alcohol. It is putting a huge strain on our health services. Four out of ten children are reputedly abused as a result of alcohol abuse within families. I met with the Samaritans yesterday and they told me that a very significant number of the calls they will get over Christmas will concern children abused as a result of alcohol abuse within the family. There is little doubt that alcohol contributes very significantly to depression and to increased suicide levels.
The Bill contains very important measures that I feel will make a positive contribution to reducing alcohol consumption. The establishment of the minimum unit price will target cheap, high-strength alcohol, which is consumed in high volumes by those who are most at risk, namely young people and harmful drinkers. Regarding the alcohol that is consumed in controlled environments such as restaurants and local pubs, those businesses have nothing to fear from this legislation.
The curbing of alcohol advertising is long overdue, as indeed is the curbing of sponsorship of events at which children make up the majority of participants. The banning of advertising near schools, playgrounds and public transport, along with the nine o'clock watershed, are very much to be welcomed.
Labelling has been referred to by other speakers. It is critical that meaningful information be easily accessible and readable on product labels. The issue of separating alcohol products from other products is also critical. I have spoken of the need to have separation in supermarkets on many occasions. It will make it that bit more difficult for vulnerable people to access alcohol. While there will be a cost involved, it will not be prohibitive.
Others have spoken about the increased cancer levels as a result of alcohol. While today is a start, we cannot underestimate the power of the drinks companies and how they will try to counteract this legislation. We need to invest further in education to highlight the harm being caused to young people by alcohol.