Thursday, 2 December 2004
Report of Strategic Task Force on Alcohol: Statements (Resumed).
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Power, to the House and I thank the Leader for raising this matter again. It is important that Members are given an opportunity to put down markers and state their position with regard to the important report on alcohol which we had before us some time ago.
I will speak in general about the problems associated with young people and alcohol. The issue may be highlighted as a result of Members speaking on it and some young people who are becoming deeply involved in the consumption of alcohol might think again and take a different view. Sometimes, when one wears a Pioneer pin and speaks about alcohol reports or about alcohol in general, there can be a tendency to simply see it as just another member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association speaking out.
I will make a few points about the report and will appeal to people in general, as well as publicans. I am concerned with the manner in which young people can purchase alcohol in public houses. One appreciates the excellent job being done by some publicans in ensuring that only people entitled to purchase and consume alcohol actually do so. In support of publicans I must point out that at least the purchasing and consumption of alcohol in public houses is controlled to the point that people see what is happening and publicans have the opportunity to refuse alcohol to people whom they believe have already consumed alcohol to excess.
One of the problems in this area relates to off-licences. Regularly at weekends and at particular times of celebration, whether it be the winning of matches or competitions, or the conclusion of exams, the alcohol consumption pattern leaves a lot to be desired. We must tighten the rules and regulations for off-licences. Recently I read that there will be further off-licence sales, with young and not so young people being able to purchase alcohol at filling stations. That is fine if the filling stations properly control such sales, but any premises moving into the off-licence business should do so only if permission has been secured to sell alcohol. The general public should be afforded the opportunity to object to a licence at a location such as a filling station. I do not agree with such licences being granted.
Many problem drinkers are young people who are then led on to use drugs. We are aware of the drugs problem in this country. Licensed premises are doing well and expanding, often in close proximity to third level education centres. In any town where there are third level institutions one can see highly organised and extended public houses which afford opportunities for drinking to people who in many cases should be studying instead of being in such premises, consuming alcohol. Such situations lead to drug abuse and to people dropping out of their centres of education.
Previous speakers mentioned alcohol abuse with regard to hospitals and accident and emergency departments. There are problems in accident and emergency departments most nights and not merely at weekends where people are unable to get beds. Half the beds are taken by people unable to stand, but many of them can walk out when they sober up the next day, having created pandemonium and problems for the hard working hospital staff. Those who work in accident and emergency departments face such problems, particularly at weekends, and they are pleading for something to be done. The public is asking why such people should not have to pay. People getting drunk and causing problems in accident and emergency departments should have to pay, whether they are on unemployment benefit or otherwise. The cost should be deducted from their payments, if necessary. I guarantee that would substantially reduce the numbers attending accident and emergency departments due to drink-related problems.
Many young people have lost their lives because of alcohol which, in some cases, is mixed with drugs. Some have committed suicide while others have been involved in accidents which should not have happened. Many families have been left brokenhearted by the loss of a dear one.
We have a responsibility to ensure young people have something to do other than go to a public house. There are schools and community colleges all over the country with well developed facilities such as gyms, yet they are closed at 5 p.m. Young people, who are walking the streets, should be given the opportunity to take part in sports or whatever activity in those gyms so that they stay out of pubs. I compliment the many people who give their time, whether to hurling, football, soccer, rugby or whatever, to ensure young people have an opportunity to play those games, to keep themselves fit, out of trouble and out of pubs.
Parents have a major responsibility in regard to alcohol consumption among young people. They should know exactly where their children are and if they are in public houses when they should not be. In many cases, parents have not shouldered this major responsibility.
Alcohol-related problems occur on our streets. The late opening hours of chippers and the like have caused major problems. There is the major problem of people going to work in the morning who are probably unable to do the work they should do. Many of them drive to work while under the influence of alcohol. Gardaí have much to do in that regard.
We must recognise the outstanding work done by many organisations to try to get young people to take part in sports and stay away from alcohol. This is a subject close to my heart and it annoys and worries me to see so many young people consuming alcohol. From a financial and a health point of view, they would be better off if they decided not to drink. I have been able to enjoy myself without consuming alcohol and so could many of those people who create major problems in the home, for themselves and for their families by consuming alcohol. I have no problem with people taking a drink but the problem is over-consumption of alcohol.
I wish the Minister of State well in his Department. I hope the contributions made by Senators on the last occasion and today will influence the Government in taking necessary steps to ensure there is a better environment for our young people.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. As it is coming up to Christmas, this is a timely opportunity for us to highlight the problems caused by alcohol which will probably be exacerbated in the next couple of weeks and perhaps into the new year. I welcome the report of the strategic task force on alcohol and the many fine recommendations therein. I find it difficult to see how implementation of any of those recommendations can be accelerated as alcohol-related problems cover so many areas of responsibility, including the Departments of Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Education and Science and Arts, Sport and Tourism and many other interest groups. A Department or a Minister should take responsibility for this issue and co-ordinate a plan because the situation is impossible.
The vested interests in the drinks industry are pulling in opposite directions. Many of us have come to accept that the vintners will call us in to tell us of the problems being caused by certain Departments and Ministers and of the dangers to them and their livelihoods as a result of new legislation restricting their activities.
Work done by the Garda is the only tangible evidence that anything has been done in a co-ordinated way to rectify the problems caused by alcohol. We must all acknowledge the dedication and commitment of the Garda to alleviate or reduce the problems caused by alcohol. Apart from the initiatives on speeding and so on, I am sure there will be an announcement on drink driving within the next few days, which will be welcome. However, I have spoken to gardaí who find it frustrating that having arrested a person for being incapable of driving or for behaving in a certain manner and having done their work in an excellent manner, that person goes free on a technicality.
Three weeks ago, a person was brought before the court for drink driving and was banned from driving but the ban was deferred for three months following an intercession by this person's legal team. The next day that person got drunk, was in charge of a car and killed an innocent man who was a husband and father, who had worked hard all his life. It must be very frustrating for the gardaí who made the initial contact and had to walk out of court that day realising that this person was, and still is, on the road. In all probability he will drink to excess again. Something must be done in such a situation. The day after the accident causing the death of another, this man should have been put off the road but it is not possible because he is innocent until proven guilty in another court. Something is wrong when he is allowed to go back on the road.
The statistics prove that this country is one of the highest consumers of alcohol in Europe. This report identifies one factor causing a decrease in alcohol consumption in the past 12 months, namely, the increase in excise, tariffs and taxes in the 2003 budget. It is ironic that although Departments have different areas of responsibility, the Minister for Finance was probably aware yesterday of this finding but imposed no increase in duty on alcohol, which is recognised as contributing to a reduction in overall alcohol consumption.
Many organisations have done great work in this area, for example, Alcoholics Anonymous whose members have identified the folly of their ways. This organisation has contributed significantly to the recovery of many people. Its groups meet every week and support people trying to abstain from alcohol. It is time to recognise the work of Alcoholics Anonymous and, perhaps, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. They meet in halls and other venues such as the community centres mentioned by Senator Moylan.
Many voluntary organisations have costly overheads for insurance, lighting, heating and other such expenses. There is no recognition or compensation for that expense. Some Government agency or Department should support genuine effort when it is seen to be made. This may not always take the form of financial support, it could be the availability of trained personnel to talk to young people outside school hours. There are pressures in school, such as peer pressure which is very serious in the context of alcohol consumption.
As Senator Moylan said, very young people are on the streets at all hours which is the responsibility of us all as parents. Very few families have not been touched by the disastrous effects of drink, whether within the immediate or the extended group. That is a widespread national phenomenon which affects urban and rural areas. Some or all Departments need to recognise that while they can act tangibly on the issue they cannot do so in a determined, focused way. Someone must take absolute control of the problem and tackle it quickly.
We must comply with the demands of tourists. Not so long ago we debated in this House the importance of allowing families to be in public houses until 10 p.m., when the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform extended the time limit. When he introduced the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2003 he suggested an extra hour which, perhaps, was reasonable. Then people said the pubs, the focus of social activity in rural areas, towns and so on, would close.
We responded to pressure from the vintners and the industry in general which, in some ways, was a shame. We are concerned to attract visitors from other parts of Europe and elsewhere but we have a culture of excessive drinking and must take responsibility for anything that leads to a continuation or expansion of that culture. We must draw a line, stand by it and accept our responsibilities in other ways.
When we consider a lack of revenue in certain areas we must look at the other side of the problem and see the cost of drunkenness to the Departments of Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the courts and the Garda, and look for some balance. Some responsible Minister and Department should be able to take up this point and lead with it.
I hope that everyone in the country will support gardaí when they are out and about intensively campaigning against drink driving. People should not see it as a nuisance but acknowledge that gardaí are protecting them. Otherwise if they are driving and meet a drunken driver they are likely to be mowed down. Everyone must be seen to support gardaí in their efforts. It is important that the Minister makes a public announcement that he intends to provide whatever financial or manpower resources are needed to enable gardaí to do that work for as long as they think necessary from now until after Christmas, to take the scourge of drunken drivers off the roads. Perhaps young people will realise then that they cannot go down the road that so many of us have taken in the past.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this issue. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on his appointment. I read the report which contains some startling figures regarding the ages of children who are drinking and the numbers of those under the age of 15 who drink regularly. One wonders where they get this drink. In defence of publicans who are generally demonised, many of those I know, some of whom are my friends, are responsible, hard-working people operating in a highly-regulated business environment. They have families and understand the problems connected with young people. They work extremely hard, seven days a week, 363 days a year to provide for their families, to educate them and so on. As in every walk of life there are rogues too and those caught making drink available to people who are under age should be dealt with severely because this causes a serious problem.
The report also indicates that young adolescents are accessing alcohol in their family homes. This is where parental control becomes an issue. We all imagine our children are angels and will not indulge in certain behaviours. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Parents should be made more aware of the dangers of having alcohol easily available in their homes. Such is the situation in my home and I am sure it is the case for most people. It is an issue we must consider.
The drinks industry also made a submission to the task force and I agree with only some elements of that submission. Its contention that increases in taxation are not a deterrent is correct. We have reached the point where there is sufficient taxation on alcohol. It has been evident through the years that price is not a deterrent. If people want alcohol, they will manage to obtain it regardless of price.
I disagree with the industry's submission that the blood alcohol level for motorists should be changed. It is a simple reality that one should not drive if one has had an alcoholic drink. This is the approach taken by 90% of people and we must continue to encourage that attitude.
I welcome that the drinks industry has given a commitment in the report to support an advertising campaign to illustrate the dangers of alcohol and encourage people to abstain from its consumption. We should ensure the industry stands by that commitment.
Garages as well as off-licences can now sell alcohol. Most of these sales are conducted using computerised tills and the bar code of the product is scanned. A system could be easily introduced whereby these sales are recorded. In this way, when a young person is found to have consumed alcohol, it should be possible to discover where the alcohol was purchased. This is an issue that must be examined. A friend of mine who owns a supermarket that operates an off-licence service was recently the object of a complaint by a parent whose 16 year old child had become drunk on alcohol purchased from that outlet. After checking with staff, the owner discovered that an 18 year old had purchased the alcohol and sold it to some under age acquaintances at a profit. This is what is happening and is the root of much of the problem. The actions of that 18 year old constitute a serious offence, regardless of whether he had gifted rather than sold the alcohol, and should be recognised as such.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, to the House. I am glad to speak on an issue which I asked the Leader to put down for discussion. I have had meetings with a number of groups involved in this area, many of which I am sure the Minister of State has also met. One such meeting consisted of a long and detailed briefing from Ms Sinéad Shannon, policy officer for Alcohol Action Ireland, who informed me of the policies and objectives of that group. The first step in tackling this issue is to recognise that the work done by organisations such as Alcohol Action Ireland is deeply unpopular and unattractive to politicians. We talk the talk but are often not of a mind to make the changes that will impact on the issue.
The problem is that changing our approach to alcohol is a quality of life and public health issue. I am beginning to change my attitude entirely on this issue. I have expressed the view many times in this House that there should be no licensing hours. I contended that if there are no limits on alcohol consumption, people will eventually grow up and take a mature view of the world. I accept I was wrong in this regard. The introduction of more flexible and liberal licensing hours has led to a significant increase in alcohol consumption. Simultaneous to the changes in the licensing laws was a major increase in the country's wealth and this may have also had an effect on drinking behaviour. However, my initial contention, which I articulated many times in this Houses, that removing the madness of early closing times and so on would lead to a more mature and gradualist approach to alcohol has not been borne out by subsequent developments.
I have been examining material produced by Alcohol Action Ireland which reveals some significant findings. This is thoroughly researched material that will stand the test of scrutiny. It highlights the need for a proper implementation of the laws on drunkenness, an issue we can all recognise. I heard recently of the case of a young man from a reasonably well-off family who appeared in court after engaging in despicable and disgraceful behaviour while in a drunken state. Over the years, we have tended to ignore such behaviour. Gardaí often merely advised perpetrators to sober up and go home. It is years since we have heard of people being arrested for drunkenness. Such arrests happened long ago, perhaps on fair days. More recently, we have taken the view that gardaí have more important work to do and that such arrests would be a waste of their time.
However, we are now encountering situations where people, including some from well-off families, find themselves in court answering charges of drunkenness and drunken behaviour. To have such behaviour described in the cold light of day in a courtroom with members of the media present is a necessary shock to the system that brings people to attention. There has been a change of attitude in regard to drunkenness. There was a time when it was macho for young people to prove they could hold their drink by not acting in a drunken fashion. The objective was to be able to take as many drinks as a seasoned, older drinker without appearing drunk. Without generalising too much, this has changed to a significant extent. In many cases, the objective for young drinkers is to get drunk as quickly as possible.
The volume of drink that is consumed is amazing. Most of us have been students and I was no different from anybody else in my behaviour at that time of my life. We drank as much as we could afford, which was never enough to get one into the state induced by the current practice of downing 14 vodka shots before commencing the serious drinking. Our objectives must change to reflect these new realities. In terms of cultural attitudes, society must confront this issue and decide that drunkenness is unacceptable. It must be the norm that not only drink driving but drunkenness itself is societally unacceptable. This is not something the community wants to see and is not something about which one should boast. This is what we need to do and it will only happen through the application of the laws on drunkenness.
Another issue that has had a marked effect on alcohol consumption is the availability of alcohol. Reduced availability, a reduction in opening hours, a restriction in locations from which alcohol can be purchased and the implementation of the age limit are all issues covered by law, which must be implemented. This will have an effect in reducing intake and I would welcome such a development. Above all, there must be a move to encourage people to discuss the problem as a public health and quality of life issue. As a society, we must determine that drunkennessis an unacceptable behaviour in "politesociety".
I disagree with Senator Scanlon when he says price increases do not make a difference. They do. Alcohol Action Ireland has shown me figures which are available to all of us. In the 2001 budget, excise duty on cider was increased. As a consequence, excise receipts went up and sales went down. In the 2002 budget, excise duty on spirits was increased. Similarly, sales of spirits went down. There is a direct connection between the cost and consumption of alcohol. We are becoming more price sensitive and people are more aware of the importance of keeping prices under control. There is no better way to discourage the consumption of alcohol than to increase its price. It is the easiest way and it does work. I ask the Minister of State to keep that in mind.
I do not understand why the Minister for Finance, in yesterday's budget statement, made a concession to micro breweries. I do not understand the need for this measure and I was not aware of a demand for it. Who gains by it? Perhaps the Minister of State can enlighten the House. I do not present this as a major issue but it sends out a questionable message.
I have dealt with the issue of supply. The supply of drink can be affected by restricting access to drink, by limiting the hours or locations of drinking, by imposing age restrictions or by increasing price. What I must say now saddens me because it undermines the case I have been making for ten years. I have always thought that education could lead to reduced demand. I firmly believe that the only way to deal with abuse of drugs, drink or such substances is not to reduce the supply, because people will always get them eventually if they wish, but to reduce demand for them. I would have thought that education on the dangers of alcohol and on its proper use would be helpful but I cannot find a single piece of research to support my view. Can the Minister of State's Department look at ways of reducing the demand for drink? How can one stop people wanting a drink? We do not want to do that. We merely want to stop people wanting too much drink. If education is not working at the school level perhaps we need to attempt it at a societal or adult level.
I urge the Minister of State to consider the advice of groups such as Alcohol Action Ireland and to try out its proposals. The research and experience of Alcohol Action Ireland throughout the world may work here. Some of the solutions are politically unattractive. There are no votes in putting up the price of the pint. However, with public acceptability and awareness of the dangers of over-drinking we could take the appropriate decisions. If that means taking unpopular decisions then that is what we must do. Meanwhile, I ask the Minister of State to give his best support, including budgetary supports, to groups working in this area. Some of these groups are working on a shoestring and they need financial support.
I also welcome the Minister of State to the House and I am delighted to contribute to this debate.
I was shocked by the report of the strategic task force on alcohol. We are now the second highest country in Europe in terms of alcohol consumption. The report categorises the different styles of drinking. There are binge drinkers, those who drink until they cannot take any more and then there are simple heavy drinkers. I did not know such categorisation existed until I read this report. Our lifestyle has changed in the past decade and this is the outcome of that change. I welcome this report. It will make us think seriously about where we go from here.
A section of the report deals with children and the drinking patterns of children aged between 15 and 18. It is shocking to think that children as young as 12 have no difficulty gaining access to all sorts of alcohol. This is a terrible indictment of our way of life.
The report states that the number of outlets selling alcohol is increasing. I had thought it was difficult to get a licence to sell drink. It now appears that once an off-licence has been given, the licence holder does not need a certificate. The question of the availability of alcohol must be revisited. Outlets for the sale of alcohol must be scrutinised. At many new garages one can buy a bottle of wine with one's petrol. I do not like that way of life. Young people are being given considerable access to alcohol. We should not allow such a way of life to take root.
Young people appear to have no shortage of money to spend on alcohol. Where do they get the money? We all know how much it costs for an evening out. How can young people from the age of 12 get money to buy drink? Many questions must be asked.
The effect of alcohol on health is visible everywhere. We see it on the streets, in the workplace, in institutions and in accident and emergency units. The knock-on effect of alcohol is seen in real ill-health such as thrombosis and cirrhosis of the liver. Alcohol also affects performance at work.
Where do we go from here? Alcohol abuse has become a community and societal problem. The schools have failed. I say this although I am a teacher. Schools try to implement alcohol education programmes. These programmes work while the children are in school but once they leave the school environment their effectiveness ceases. We must devise a community policy which takes parents into account. Attitudes and values are vital. If a child's attitude is affected early in his or her home life a different style of life will take root. The community must take up this challenge.
We have laws in this area, including the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003. We have banned happy hours and children under 18 are not allowed in licensed premises after 9 p.m. However, they do not seem to have worked and awful tragedies continue to happen on the roads. Every day we see newspaper reports of accidents that occurred between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. involving young people and drink driving.
We need to consider new options to prevent harm. How can we protect our children? How can we bring in a public health spirit? How can we create awareness? How can we link with the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science to bring about change? These are questions we must put again. Parents, the community and the Garda all need to do their bit. I recall the awful nightclub tragedy last year. The behaviour of the young men outside that nightclub says it all. Something has gone very wrong in our society when people, who should know better, cannot be responsible for their behaviour at a certain point in the night.
We must ask how we can change attitudes. Teachers and parents in conjunction with the community and local gardaí need to be vigilant every night to see how best we can bring about a change in society to ensure that everybody has a safe journey on the roads this Christmas. Everybody is now taking their lives in their hands when getting onto their cars to drive for a long journey. Even the best driver in the world could come across a young drunk person driving at excessive speed. If we can bring about such a change we will make inroads into the problem. We must return to the traditional way that worked in the past with parents taking control of their young children to inculcate in them a value system that shows respect for themselves, their neighbours and the community. We must start with the parents, some of whom are here today listening to this debate. If we can get this right, we do not need laws, which only go so far. The parents can be the law.
Local authorities have by-laws covering drinking in open spaces of which there is insufficient awareness. The parents of a young person drinking in an open space should be given a substantial on-the-spot fine within an hour of the incident. If it is not done in that way it will not penetrate into the system. How many people know about the report of the strategic task force on alcohol? If I were not a Member of the Seanad, I would not have known and I doubt if anybody else would have known about it. We need to start a major awareness programme among interested parties advising of the need for a change in society to bring about a different style of life and protect our values so that we can tell the world at large that we no longer have the highest consumption of alcohol in the world. We need to be able to show that we know how to respect ourselves, our families and our way of life. We must return to the traditional way of handling this problem by encouraging a community spirit. If we do this we have some hope of curbing the problem and bringing about a new way of life.
I welcome the Minister of State. I suggest to Senator Ormonde that the way to create awareness of the guidelines from the report on the strategic task force on alcohol is to implement them as Government policy. Perhaps she might get the opportunity to raise this matter at her next parliamentary party meeting. Two years ago an interim report made many of the same kinds of suggestions. These reports are excellent and comprehensive. If they were implemented as Government policy it would go along way towards addressing the problems of alcohol misuse.
The North West Alcohol Forum chaired by Denis Bradley has been working very proactively on the ground in conjunction with the North Western Health Board. Last October representatives of this group met the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, to discuss the possibility of using the work of the body as a pilot community mobilisation study based on its recommendations and guidelines in addressing alcohol problems. Many of the recommendations and guidelines of the North West Alcohol Forum came from the interim report of the strategic task force on alcohol. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, to liase with the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, to further the forum's request to implement a community pilot project in the north west. As the Minister of State is aware all politics is local. Starting to address such a major national problem at a local level might represent a way forward.
Donegal Youth Council, established two years ago, is the first democratically elected all-county youth council for 16 to 20 year olds in the county. Elections take place through the schools with students electing their peers as opposed to representatives being appointed like the Taoiseach's nominations. They are not appointed by principals or boards of management. This year's elections have just been completed and 10,000 young people elected 42 or 46 youth councillors. That youth council is very effective given that young people who know what is happening on the ground represent their peers.
While, as a 33 year old, I consider myself relatively young, I am completely out of touch with what is happening among 18 to 24 year olds. As Senator Ormonde has said, a completely new drinking culture and behaviour exists which is not akin to the lifestyle I led. It involves power drinking on one trip during the week perhaps on a Friday night, or on Friday and Saturday. The phrase used in Donegal is "flat to the mat drinking for the weekend" and can take place day and night involving very heavy drinking of alcopops and other drinks. Approximately a year ago a friend of mine told me he was going to go drinking on a Saturday saying "I'm going to go at it like a day's work". This type of compulsive drinking behaviour is the norm among that age group.
The Government should seriously consider the Donegal Youth Council model. Two members of that council are represented on the North West Alcohol Forum. Honest and forward-looking recommendations are continually made through that conduit. The North West Alcohol Forum is holding a summit in the near future on which there should be a national focus.
Alcohol is not an underlying cause of domestic violence but, having spoken with Women's Aid this morning, it was brought home how it can exacerbate domestic violence. Statistically, from 29 December onwards, there is a high incidence of domestic violence.
I came into this debate to achieve one objective — for the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Tim O'Malley, to consider using the North West Alcohol Forum as a five-year pilot scheme. The Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Gallagher, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, and Deputy Keaveney are all aware of it — we met with the forum in October. It could act as a pilot project and I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, will follow through on a commitment he gave on this project in which he has shown an interest.
The North West Alcohol Forum has been working proactively. Following the first meeting, chairman Denis Bradley said that in addressing any type of drink-related problem we must start with the simple premise that Irish people like to drink. It has been that way for centuries, it is the way now and it will be the way in future. Irish people like to enjoy a few drinks, barring our representative from the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, Senator Moylan. It is a simple premise. We do not want a "say no to alcohol" flagship, we want people to enjoy their drink without going overboard and doing harm to themselves and the wider society. Senator O'Toole, however, is being realistic when he says that pubs cannot stay open all night long. We must accept that we do not know when to stop. We enjoy our few tipples but sometimes we have a problem knowing when to call it a night.
It is in the Minister of State's hands to relay what has been said in this debate to the Minister. I hope she will recognise the North West Alcohol Forum as a five-year pilot programme from which we can learn.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. There has been much common sense displayed in the House on this subject and the same common sense can be heard in any discussion around the country. If all the words of condemnation and exhortation were effective, we would all be walking models of sobriety. This is not a new problem so we must ask why there was a need for a strategic task force on alcohol. It is a recognition that this problem is now bordering on a crisis.
When the rules of the Oireachtas were first drawn up, it was laid down that no Member could wear any emblem except the Pioneer pin. That was a message that even then we recognised the problem we have as a people.
The Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, gave a speech at a function in County Clare recently that received extensive publicity. Several of her colleagues, and this surprised me, took up the same theme — it even went as far as The Sunday Times. She was frank and open in saying that there is something wrong in Irish society and that it is time for us to tip-toe back to reality. She put it that we must tip-toe back to the church but she meant it in a broader way, namely, that we must go back to a reality that provided us with a base for the decency, quality of life and understanding of other people's rights and needs that have always been part of the Irish character. She could have developed that point in the context of alcohol abuse.
The first excuse we gave for alcohol abuse in Ireland over the decades was that because we came from a deprived situation, we had to have relief from it. Today we argue that we need it because we are affluent. This is an absolute contradiction that demonstrates that we are seeking excuses instead of answers and that is part of the problem.
As a people, we have been on the receiving end of the Punch cartoons, but we do not have to go back that far in journalism. Last week a journalist in Britain, writing about a particular situation referred to a room full of drunken Irishmen to explain it. I hope the Press Council takes him to task but the mere fact he did it shows the caricature of Irish people that still exists. Being fair, however, in many ways that caricature is deserved. When President McAleese spoke on this issue, she did not speak about it in Ireland, she did it in a speech abroad. I knew what she was trying to achieve. In the 12 hours following her speech there were people who tried to misrepresent her and said that she let down the home side. She was trying to give a message to the world that we are a race that does not deserve the general caricature presented of us, that in many ways things have changed. She was, however, admitting that there is a serious problem.
We went through a period when we regarded it as funny to tell jokes about alcoholics. Almost all stand-up comedians did it, stuttering their way through what alcoholics do. It was not at all funny and I often reacted by asking people to go to O'Connell Street and look at a wino and see if there is anything funny about that person in the gutter. I have often stopped to engage them in conversation, as they lie there with a bottle in one hand, unwashed, unwanted and unloved, with no place in this great affluent society. There is no comedy in that, no more than there was in the blasphemy on "The Late Late Show" from a comedian recently. Thanks be to God that the public reacted in that case and an apology had to be offered for that blasphemy. I see nothing funny in making jokes about the crucifixion of Christ. Have we gone so low as a people that we stay silent, that we will not respond and tell people who use vulgarity that we will not accept it?
It is the same with alcohol abuse. A survey was carried out three years ago in a particular part of Ireland. It showed that not alone had the vast majority of young people, aged 13, tasted alcohol, but they had virtually become victims of binge drinking. There is no hope for those young people unless something is done, because we know full well that alcohol and drugs are first cousins. Alcohol is a drug and is addictive. However, we will not take a stand and say, "No more advertising of alcohol". It should not be allowed, if it is an addictive drug and is ruining young lives. We have seen what has happened with cigarettes. There are court cases and litigation under way all over the world where people said that the manufacturers knew tobacco was addictive, but that the results were kept hidden. They have been held accountable, particularly in the courts of America, and retrospectively are now paying out millions. For ages we did not accept or believe that tobacco was addictive. It is addictive, in the same way that alcohol is. Would it not be in the interests of the brewers to become part of the partnership we are talking about here? I am an optimist by nature, but I do not care what legislation, rules, condemnation or exhortation are employed, I do not believe any of this will make much headway. The only way to change this is by taking two steps back from the society that we have today.
That is what Ms Emily O'Reilly was aiming at. It took great courage because she was stepping out of line with her colleagues. However, I am sure she was encouraged when she found that instead of being condemned, there were many among her colleagues in that silent situation who felt exactly the same way. We have had the same approach from Ms Mary Kenny. We all know Ms Kenny had exceptionally liberal views and favoured kicking over the traces and letting young people do what they want. Every single week Ms Kenny now bemoans that same philosophy. We have many good people, but there is one other area from where we should be getting help, namely, the icons of the entertainment world.
Most of us cannot hear the lyrics, but if one takes time to listen to the words in some of the pop songs, I guarantee one will not find any exhortation not to take drugs or alcohol but quite the opposite. These are the role models of today. Senator McHugh was gracious and generous in the context of his own particular age parameter, if I may put it that way. However, the people who have the influence — I will not mention names — are in the entertainment world. How come they will not become the leaders in this regard? We should appeal to them. If Ms Emily O'Reilly took a stand, let us see how many in the entertainment world will go on the Pat Kenny show or "The Late Late Show" and make exactly the same point. They have done great work for other causes such as the Third World, but there is a culture here in Ireland currently that is devastating young lives. Celebrities can help. Let them go in the positive direction. I welcome the report and praise the people who were involved. I have great regard for people who are persistent and consistent because there is a temptation to feel helpless as regards these issues, which require to be addressed by more than mere legislation.
Even in the political world more of us should be willing to take a stand, while accepting that we will be regarded as old-fashioned and coming from another era. So what? Have Members ever met a young family which has lost a child as a result of drug abuse or one whose children were up in court as a result of alcohol abuse? One soon realises the difficulties we have in our society in those circumstances. I would much prefer to be called old-fashioned, if I thought I was going to prevent in some way other families being exposed to that same trauma as those which are being paraded through the courts every day and take up column inches in the newspapers.
I do not know what message the Minister of State can take from here. I know there is much goodwill about this matter. I have no doubt the Government is determined to do something about it, but I genuinely believe that what is needed at the moment is a crusade. Into that crusade we must bring all the partners who have any influence in society. Senator Moylan touched on sports and other areas. We must all come together. There is no longer a problem, there is a crisis in society. The way we can emphasise that, I believe, is to admit what is causing it.
I thank Members for their welcome and kind wishes regarding my appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children. Perhaps I should extend the good wishes to Senator McHugh and wish him well in his future. It has been claimed that romantic Ireland is dead and gone, "... with O'Leary in the grave", but it would now appear——
——romantic Ireland is alive and well. It may be discerned in Deputy Enright of Fine Gael.
The second report of the strategic task force has presented us with a valuable and comprehensive review of alcohol trends, in terms of its use and consequences, in both an Irish and European context. The report's 78 recommendations are based on internationally proven measures which are evidence based and appropriate to Ireland's complex alcohol problems, as outlined in my opening address and, indeed, outlined very well by a number of Members today and previously. Several Members mentioned the previous report of the task force, which was published in 2002. I would like to take the opportunity to highlight the many successful initiatives which have taken place since that report's publication.
In 2002 over €6 billion of personal income was spent on alcohol, representing just less than €2,000 or approximately €40 a week for every adult living in this country. An important statistic, that of overall consumption, fell last year for the first time in over 16 years. This change must be maintained and built upon and in tandem with the implementation of the recommendations we will in time see a reduction in alcohol-related harm. Progress has been made in a number of other areas arising from the implementation of measures recommended in the report of the first task force. A three-year alcohol awareness campaign was launched which proved effective in raising awareness of alcohol as a public health issue. The Road Traffic Act extended the grounds for requesting a breath specimen and a move to random breath testing is recommended. The recently published road safety strategy 2004-06 also calls for the introduction of random breath testing. The Government has strengthened the licensing laws through the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003, which contains measures to counter drunkenness and disorderly conduct and to combat under age drinking. These include the prohibition of "happy hours" and of persons under 18 from the bars of licensed premises after set times. The Act prohibits the supply of intoxicating liquor to drunken persons on licensed premises and licensees may not permit drunkenness in the bars of licensed premises.
Legislation is being drafted by the parliamentary draftsman which aims to reduce the exposure of alcohol to children, from advertising and marketing. A number of research projects have been undertaken to monitor and inform alcohol policy decision making. The Irish Sports Council's code of ethics and good practice for children's sport in Ireland has been instrumental in encouraging national sporting organisations to promote alcohol-free sporting environments. This code contains several recommendations as regards alcohol and to date 62 out of the 67 governing sports bodies have signed up to it and appointed national children's officers to implement the guidelines at local level. The health promotion unit produced a framework for the development of a college alcohol policy in association with the heads of colleges and the Union of Students of Ireland. The framework provides guidelines for a comprehensive approach which includes measures on controlling promotion, sponsorship and marketing on college campuses, providing education and support services as well as alternatives and limiting harm in the drinking environment. The responsible server training programme, developed by the Department of Health and Children and the drinks industry, is being delivered nationwide.
Last year there was a substantial increase in the number of public order offences in Ireland and alcohol has been identified as a major factor. Excessive consumption of alcohol represents one of the most serious threats to public health. Despite all the figures and the evidence on a weekly basis, it is remarkable how tolerant as a nation we are of alcohol. That may be a state of mind or an attitude we have grown up with but it is an attitude we have to change. While there has been improvement I accept that much more needs to be done. This report of the task force must be used as our guideline for future actions. The Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children intends to bring this report to Government in the near future to seek approval for the implementation of its recommendations. The Government is committed to tackling the problem and I thank Members for their valuable contributions and the interest they have shown in this important public health issue, not only today but on many occasions in recent years.
Members of the Joint Committee on Health and Children have also contributed greatly through their report on alcohol misuse by young people. While in the media young people are often painted as the real offenders when it comes to alcohol-related problems, the majority of alcohol-related harm takes place among the adult population. The same applies in the case of drink driving. It appears young drivers are much more responsible when it comes to not drinking and driving.
The task force has produced a comprehensive robust report which I urge every public representative, public servant, medical expert and relevant organisation and institution to examine and to work towards the implementation of its recommendations. I accept the point made by Senator Ormonde that perhaps it has not been made available to the public or that we have not explained it to the public as well we could have done. That is an issue at which we will look.
We have a very serious problem but we can take effective measures that will make the difference. While Ireland might like a drink, as Senator McHugh said in quoting another gentleman, the same could be said about smoke and smoking. We introduced some legislative changes recently which dealt with smoking in the workplace. This time last year one could have said that Ireland liked to smoke, today it could be said that Ireland is happy to be smokeless. Recent figures indicate that sales of tobacco have reduced by 17% since the introduction of the ban. We should not give up hope. We can reduce the number of people——
No. We can take measures which will reduce the number of people who drink excessively. There is no one change that will make the difference. It will require a number of changes and the full support of all Members and, more importantly, those outside the House.
I thank the House for inviting me to present the report and Members for their contributions.