Seanad debates

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Alcohol Consumption in Ireland: Statements


2:30 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, to the House.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the House for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to discuss it. I apologise to Members for being late and thank them for their patience, but I had to take a debate on Portlaoise hospital in the Dáil and given the day that was in it I thought I should respond to it myself.

Before I start I wish to put the issue of alcohol in context. At the moment, the Department of Health and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and I are pursuing 25 actions for this year around five major themes. They are Healthy Ireland, patient outcomes and safety, universal health care reform and the modernisation of our infrastructural facilities. We put Healthy Ireland first for a particular reason, because it is our belief that we need to improve our health as individuals, as that is in our own interest, but also we need to improve our health as a nation if we are ever going to get on top of the health problems we face in this country or ever get on top of health budgets. That includes lots of different actions. The Healthy Ireland survey is now under way. It is the first survey of our nation's health since SLÁN back in 2007. Members will be aware of the actions taken by the previous Minister, Deputy James Reilly, and our forbears on tobacco and the regulation of sunbeds, which was introduced in recent months to protect children in particular from skin cancer, and also the actions that are being taken on obesity. Alcohol is just one part of the bigger Healthy Ireland picture, which in itself is only one part of a bigger effort in health.

Ireland has a serious problem. We drink too much overall and we tend to binge drink a lot. In spite of what we might like to think, alcohol is not abused by a small minority of individuals. In fact, the majority of people who drink do so in a harmful way. Our alcohol consumption is in the top five among the 28 EU member states, and although alcohol consumption per capitadeclined between 2007 and 2013, it remains high. The damaging dominance of a harmful drinking pattern remains very high by European standards and is a major public health concern. From the provisional figures available, we know that alcohol consumption per capitaincreased from 10.6 litres in 2013 to 11 litres in 2014. That is probably related to the upturn in the economy and represents the first increase in alcohol consumption in a number of years. If that is the case, it is a matter of real concern, because it indicates that without policy change, as more people return to work and they have more money in their pockets, they are likely to drink more of it.

Patterns of drinking, especially drinking to intoxication, play an important role in causing alcohol-related harm. In Ireland, as I mentioned, we tend to binge drink. Ireland was second in the WHO European region in relation to binge drinking, with 39% of the population misusing alcohol in this manner at least monthly. The Health Research Board's alcohol diary survey found that 54% of adult drinkers were classified as harmful drinkers, 75% of all alcohol consumed was done as part of a binge drinking session, and Irish drinkers underestimate their alcohol intake by 61%. The study found that more than half of adult drinkers in the population are classified as harmful drinkers, which equates to between 1.3 million and 1.4 million people. The findings lead to the conclusion that harmful drinking is the norm in Ireland, in particular for young people - men and women aged under 35 years.

This pattern of drinking is causing significant harm to individuals, their families and society. It is estimated that it was responsible for at least 83 deaths every month in 2011. It was associated with 8,836 attendances in 2012 to specialised addiction treatment centres. It was involved in one of every three poisoning deaths in Ireland in 2012 and remains the substance implicated in most poisonings. It was a contributory factor in half of all suicides and in deliberate self-harm. It is associated with a risk of developing health problems such as alcohol dependence, liver cirrhosis, cancer and injuries. It is a factor in many assaults, including sexual assaults, assaults against children, rape, domestic violence and manslaughter. It contributes to high levels of non-attendance at work and lower productivity and it is also associated with higher college drop-out rates. As we are all aware, it is a factor in 30% of road collisions and in 36.5% of fatal road collisions. The European Alcohol Policy Alliance has warned that, taking all diseases and injuries at a global level into account, the negative health impact of alcohol consumption is 31.6 times higher than the benefit that does exist from low levels of alcohol consumption.

The HSE report, Alcohol Harm to Others, examines the damage that alcohol causes in the general population, the workplace and children in families. The report says that over one in four people in Ireland reported experiencing negative consequences as a result of someone else's drinking. One in ten Irish workers experienced negative consequences due to co-workers who were heavy drinkers and one in ten Irish parents reported that children experienced harm in the past 12 months as a result of someone else's drinking. The results confirm that alcohol is causing significant damage across the population, in workplaces and to children, and carries a substantial burden to all in Irish society. Action is required to protect the health and well-being of the wider public, and especially children, from alcohol use.

The Government is committed to tackling alcohol misuse in Ireland and the widespread harm and pain it causes. A comprehensive and detailed package of measures has been approved to do so. As Members are aware, the general scheme of the public health (alcohol) Bill was published last February and my Department is currently drafting the Bill. I intend to have the Bill published before the summer recess and introduced in the Houses of the Oireachtas in autumn. This legislation is the most far-reaching proposed by any Government, with alcohol being addressed for the first time as a public health issue. The Bill is part of a comprehensive suite of measures to reduce excessive patterns of alcohol consumption, as set out in the steering group report on a national substance misuse strategy. It is also one of the measures being taken under the Healthy Ireland framework to which I referred previously. The aim is to reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland to 9.1 litres per person per annum, which is the OECD or developed world average, by 2020, and to reduce the harms associated with alcohol, particularly by reducing binge drinking.

At the recent National Alcohol Forum conference, Dr. Thomas Babor spoke about the need to tackle the problems of alcohol misuse by focusing on affordability, availability and attractiveness. The public health (alcohol) Bill provides for minimum unit pricing, to eliminate very cheap alcohol from stores, particularly supermarkets; health and calorie labelling on alcohol products to improve consumer information; structural separation in stores to reduce the availability and visibility of alcohol, so that it is no longer sold as a normal grocery product; restrictions on the advertising and marketing of alcohol; regulation of sports sponsorship; and enforcement powers for environmental health officers.

Addressing the price of alcohol is an important component of any long-term approach to tackling alcohol misuse. The price of alcohol is directly linked to consumption levels and levels of alcohol-related harm. The World Health Organization has said that there is:

...indisputable evidence that the price of alcohol matters. If the price of alcohol goes up, alcohol-related harm goes down.
Despite the fact that we have relatively high excise duty rates, the price of alcohol remains very affordable, particularly in supermarkets. A woman can reach her low-risk weekly drinking limit for just €6.30 a week, while a man can reach the weekly limit for €10. The Bill will make it illegal to sell or advertise for sale alcohol at a price below a set minimum price. Minimum unit pricing, MUP, sets a minimum price per gram of alcohol and will be based on the number of grams of alcohol in the product.

I know that many Members listened to the excellent presentation given by Dr. John Holmes and Dr. Colin Angus from the University of Sheffield on minimum unit pricing, and the study they carried out in Ireland, so I will not dwell on those results. Suffice to say that the study provided robust evidence that minimum unit pricing policies would be effective in reducing alcohol consumption, alcohol harm, and the costs associated with such harm. MUP would have only a small impact on alcohol consumption for low-risk drinkers. Somewhat larger impacts would be experienced by increasing-risk drinkers, with the most substantial effects being experienced by high-risk drinkers. That is because MUP is aimed at those who drink in a harmful and hazardous manner. Alcohol products which are strong and cheap are those favoured by the heaviest drinkers, who are most at risk of alcohol-related illness and death, and young people, who have the least disposable income.

MUP is not expected to affect the price of alcohol in the on-trade, but it will prevent large multiple retailers from absorbing increases in excise rates and from using alcohol as a loss leader. Officials in my Department are also looking at possible mechanisms to ensure that some of the financial benefits of MUP, if any, may flow back to the Exchequer. Some have been calling for a ban on below-cost selling instead of MUP. I wish to take the opportunity to clarify why MUP is more effective than a ban on below-cost selling. First, there is no agreed definition of below-cost selling in Ireland or how it can be calculated. If it is interpreted as alcohol being sold below the price of VAT and excise duty, then very little alcohol is sold at that price in Ireland.The University of Sheffield study found that a ban on below-cost selling would have a negligible impact on alcohol consumption or related harms. Working out a cost price that incorporates other costs such as manufacturing, transportation and retailing is a complex and expensive exercise and might not even be accurate. Banning below-cost selling would be difficult to implement, monitor and enforce, whereas minimum unit pricing is easier to understand, measure and enforce.

Others have been calling for a general increase in excise rates. A difficulty with such a measure is that it would render premium and higher-priced alcohol more expensive, which is unnecessary for the purpose of targeting hazardous and harmful drinkers, who tend to purchase larger quantities of cheap alcohol. A tax increase would not necessarily have the same effect as a compulsory minimum price, because of the risk that taxes would not be passed on in full. MUP prevents large multiple retailers from absorbing increases in excise rates and using alcohol as a loss leader to generate footfall for other products.

As part of the process of working out what the appropriate MUP might be, we are taking into account estimates from the report of the University of Sheffield and consulting with the relevant Departments. If MUP is to be effective, the price needs to be set at a level that will reduce the burden of harm from alcohol use but not so high that it increases the cost of a pint in the pub or a glass of wine in a pizzeria. Concerns have been expressed about the impact MUP might have on cross-Border trade. The Minister for Health in Northern Ireland has also announced plans to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol in that jurisdiction. My officials are in contact with their counterparts in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on the matter and are cognisant of the requirement to work with the North on implementation.

Last February, the Scottish Inner Court of Sessions, that country's highest court, referred a number of questions on MUP to the European Court of Justice. The latter held a hearing on this case on 6 May and a judgment is expected by the end of the year. We intervened in the case by making a submission in writing and delivering an oral statement in Luxembourg last week. We are confident MUP will be found to be compatible with EU treaties and rules. As such, it is important that all the necessary steps are put in place to commence the legislation, if enacted.

MUP will be complemented by the making of regulations under section 16 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008. This section provides for the making of regulations which may prohibit or restrict advertising, promoting, selling or supplying of alcohol at reduced prices or free of charge in order to reduce the risk of a threat to public order and health risks from the misuse of alcohol. This will allow us, for example, to prohibit volume-based offers, such as three for the price of two deals.

Protecting children from exposure to alcohol marketing is an important public health goal. There is a body of research which shows that exposure to alcohol marketing, whether on television, in movies, in public places or via alcohol-branded sponsorship, predicts future youth drinking. Longitudinal studies have found that young people who are exposed to alcohol marketing are more likely to start drinking or, if already drinking, to drink more. Research also shows that self-regulation is not able to protect young people from exposure to large volumes of alcohol marketing and appealing alcohol advertising. The Bill will make it illegal to market or advertise alcohol in a manner that is appealing to children. It provides for the making of regulations regarding the marketing and advertising of alcohol and includes provisions for restrictions on broadcast marketing and advertising, cinema advertising, outdoor advertising, print media and the regulation of sponsorship by alcohol companies. This will encompass major sporting events for the first time by putting the existing code of practice for sponsorships by drinks companies on a legal footing with enforcement powers and penalties. In addition, the legislation will contain a commitment that the provisions on marketing and advertising will be reviewed after three years.

On labelling, research shows that accurate information on the alcohol content of specific beverages is essential to promote awareness of alcohol intake. However, "standard drinks" and alcohol units are widely misunderstood by the general public. In order to address this, the Bill will provide that labels on alcohol products must contain health warnings, including for pregnancy, must indicate the amount of pure alcohol as measured in grammes, and must show the calorie count. Under the legislation, pubs and restaurants will be obliged to provide this information to customers for alcohol products sold on draught or in measures, including pints, glasses of wine and measures of spirits. Health warnings will also be included on all promotional material, including advertisements.

From a merchandising perspective, the Minister for Justice and Equality and I are examining the best way to implement the separation of alcohol products from other products in mixed-trading premises. Our aim is to ensure alcohol products cannot be displayed in the same way as ordinary grocery products, as they currently are displayed.

It is vital that any measures introduced to tackle the misuse of alcohol are enforceable. The provisions in the Bill will be enforced by environmental health officers who work for the Health Service Executive. Measures to be enforced include minimum unit pricing, health labelling, control of marketing and advertising, structural separation of alcohol from other products, and regulations relating to the sale, supply and consumption of alcohol products under section 16 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008. These pertain to restrictions on advertising, promoting, selling or supplying alcohol at reduced prices or free of charge.

We must inform the public about the damage caused by alcohol abuse and explain clearly the aims of our policies in this area. We need to change our attitude to alcohol in general. I hope that by working together we can achieve and surpass our goal of reducing consumption of alcohol in Ireland to the developed world average by 2020 and reducing the significant harms caused by the misuse of alcohol. As I said earlier, I will be seeking Government approval to publish the Bill before the summer recess. I look forward to bringing it to the Seanad for debate.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I compliment him on not pulling any punches. What he has outlined amounts to a shocking indictment of our society. Issues surrounding the abuse of alcohol come up for debate in virtually every element of the work we do as legislators. We are talking about health issues, crime issues, anti-social behaviour, economic issues and many other matters. In many cases, it takes an extreme case to regenerate the debate, but the time comes when we must cry "Stop". We all know full well that the drinks industry is an exceptionally strong lobby. When radical measures were formulated in the past, they tended to fall short precisely because of the power of the industry.

The Minister outlined the damage alcohol misuse is causing to society, including children. There is no doubt that children are the main victims of the abuse of alcohol in homes and elsewhere. That alone should be sufficient to make us more determined and courageous than we ever have been before on this issue. There is no person in this House who has not witnessed anti-social behaviour arising from excessive consumption of alcohol. At times it can be absolutely frightening and those involved have respect for nobody. That type of behaviour has reached such an extreme that it now features on a weekly television programme which shows what happens when people go boozing at home or abroad. When we see on our television screens what happens after the nightclubs are closed, it underlines the seriousness of where we are.

We are told that 2,000 hospital beds are occupied every night by people with alcohol problems. The HSE has indicated that in 2007 alcohol-related problems cost the State €3.7 billion, which equates to more than €3,000 for every taxpayer in the country. Alcohol has an involvement, we are told, in half of the suicides in this country. We were all shocked by the epidemic of suicides we saw in recent years and we mourn for the young people whose lives are cut short unnecessarily and the impact this has on families.

Some of the stories we are hearing about the behaviour of our young people abroad are a cause for great concern.The number of young Irish people who are letting down the side through excessive drinking and extreme anti-social behaviour in Australia is attracting many column inches in newspapers and featuring on television. While I am prepared to accept that much of what we have heard may not be correct, Irish people will always be in the spotlight when alcohol-related issues arise because of the caricature that has evolved over decades, if not centuries, of Irish people being prone to excessive drinking. St. Patrick's Day never passes without disruption and the necessity to take the most extreme measures to avoid riots on the streets. The same could be said of many other festivals.

I listened this morning to a radio interview with a group of school students who, by my reckoning, were aged not more than 15 or 16 years. The discussion was proceeding in a very casual manner when the interviewer asked about activities and sport. Responding to a question about the training regime for a specific sport, one of the youngsters stated that drinking was banned until the games were over and training had finished. The interviewer's response, which was appropriate, was to ask whether drinking at such a young age was the right thing to do. A survey carried out some years ago in a locality that I will not mention showed that a large percentage of 13 year old children were drinking spirits.

I recall the challenges and hullabaloo that followed when it was proposed to take action on smoking. Many lobby groups came to the fore arguing that we were creating a nanny state and infringing people's rights. We had to bring home to people the message that every second smoker was likely to die from a tobacco related disease and it took a long time to get it through. Opponents of the ban on smoking in public places stated they would fight the measure and, as usual, the lobby groups stated they would oppose any restriction on advertising.

In complimenting the Minister, I noted that he did not pull any punches. There is little or no difference between the alcohol-related and tobacco-related problems we face. As I pointed out, alcohol and tobacco raise health, economic and anti-social issues. While I appreciate the difficulties facing the Minister, we should immediately cut the cord between the drinks industry and sport, even if this means the State must intervene to provide some finance to sporting organisations. There is little point speaking about young people when our sporting heroes are carrying the flag for the drinks industry. Sport should not carry any advertising for the drinks industry.

The number of deaths caused by alcohol and the manner in which young people are being exploited and undermined are an indictment of society. Why should we allow drink to be advertised and glamorised to suggest to young people that they should drink? I accept it will be difficult to take the serious action needed in this regard, as it was when the smoking ban was introduced. However, if we accept the veracity of the statistics provided by the Minister, we must meet this problem head on. I wish the Minister well in this regard and acknowledge that he faces a difficult problem. The issue is not one of social drinking because social drinkers are very often the victims of excessive abuse of alcohol.

We must take on all of those who, despite the statistics, wish to continue to exploit Irish people and their international reputation and see deaths result from the abuse of alcohol. This is one of the major issues of the day and every bit as big as many economic issues facing us. Until we are prepared to say "Enough is enough", we will continue to apply a sticking plaster and fail to change our culture.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and thank him for a comprehensive overview of this issue, including the relevant facts and figures. Senator Ó Murchú noted that alcohol-related issues cost the health service €3.7 billion annually. The direct cost of alcohol is €2.4 billion. The Minister noted that 83 people die each month as a direct result of health problems caused by alcohol consumption.

It is interesting to note the change in alcohol consumption in Ireland in recent years. On a visit to Sweden some years ago, I noted that the country had few public houses but a major problem with alcohol. I could not understand this but discovered that one of the reasons was the amount of alcohol being consumed at home. At that time, Ireland did not have a culture of people consuming alcohol at home. This has changed in the meantime, however. When people start consuming alcohol at home there is no limit on consumption, which increases the problem, especially as we already have a pub culture.

In the 12 years I served as a city councillor representing the area surrounding University College Cork, I observed a change in culture. For example, four bars within a mile radius of the college closed as alcohol consumption shifted towards drinking at home.

It is interesting to note the survey produced by the winners of the young scientist exhibition, Ian O'Sullivan and Eimear Murphy, who gave an excellent presentation to the Joint Committee on Health and Children recently. They carried out research on alcohol consumption which highlighted the connection between the attitude of parents and the behaviour of children. They found that adolescents who engaged in hazardous drinking were three times more likely to have a father who is a hazardous drinker; six times more likely to have a father who agrees that it is okay for his child to get drunk sometimes; four times more likely to have a father who agrees that getting drunk is part of having fun as a teenager; five times more likely to have a father who would allow another parent to supply his adolescent with alcohol; almost five times more likely to have a father who would not be concerned by his adolescent son or daughter consuming four pints of alcohol once a month; and five times more likely to have a father who believes it is okay for pupils to drink on special occasions. It was also interesting to note the strong correlation found between adolescents who had a problem with binge drinking and parents with a similar problem. The survey clearly found that parents influence young people.

This research was comprehensive and involved a large number of people.It also sends out some frightening messages of which we need to be aware. We need to work towards sending the message that consumption of alcohol affects one's health and excessive consumption will seriously affect one's health. This has not been sufficiently emphasised in the past.

I note that minimum pricing of alcohol has been introduced in Canada. A survey in one of the Canadian provinces indicated that a 10% increase in the minimum price of alcohol was associated with an 8.4% decrease in total alcohol consumption. In British Columba, a 10% increase in the minimum price was associated with a 32% fall in wholly alcohol-related deaths. We should aim for the introduction of minimum unit pricing of alcohol. I welcome the heads of the Bill and I look forward to the publication of the legislation. However, there is much work to be done, in particular, in the area of education with regard to the use of alcohol. While alcohol is fine in its own way, excessive drinking is a serious danger to health and a serious danger to young people in particular.

I refer to two high-risk groups for whom excessive drinking is causing problems. People on low incomes will look for the cheapest product. Minimum pricing will associate price with the alcohol content of drink. The high-risk groups such as people on low incomes buy the cheapest product with a high alcohol content. Where minimum pricing is introduced, their consumption of alcohol will decrease. Young people comprise the other group who will buy cheap alcohol as they have the least disposable income. We need to focus on this group in particular. Minimum pricing will certainly help to reduce the consumption of alcohol. We must also ensure adequate enforcement of minimum pricing.

A problem that has arisen is that every petrol station and every small shop is selling alcohol but there is no separation of alcohol from ordinary goods. This needs to be changed. I have raised this matter as a Commencement matter. I am informed it is not possible to implement the section of the current legislation in full. I hope the new legislation will provide for a clear separation of the sale of alcohol from other goods in such premises.

I welcome the Minister's statement and the strategy for introducing legislation before the end of this Government's term. It is an important issue from the point of view of the net cost to the taxpayer. The consumption of alcohol contributes to serious health problems and at a very great cost to the health service. The Government must make the changes in order to reduce the high levels of alcohol consumption by quite a proportion of the population.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. At this point I wish to thank my colleague, Senator Jillian van Turnhout for a very collegiate offer in allowing me to speak ahead of her because I have to take part in a debate this evening with Senator Lorraine Higgins which has been organised by NUI Galway, our alma mater, on the referendum. There is possibly such a thing as binge debating but I wish to thank Senator van Turnhout. Given how seriously she takes her brief, she would want to be here for the entire debate. I will make it my business to check the record of the Minister's comments afterwards. I apologise that I cannot stay until the conclusion of the debate.

I welcome this debate very much as an opportunity to listen to the Government's plans and to commend the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, on being so active in this area. It is beyond dispute that we need much more regulation in this area to improve public health. The planned public health (alcohol) Bill aims to put in place minimum pricing and will regulate alcohol advertising and sponsorship targeted at young people. Creidim féin go láidir go bhfuil sé thar am deireadh a chur le poiblíocht, bolscaireacht agus urraíocht ó chomhlachtaí alcóil atá dírithe ar an aos óg.

I also welcome that it is the Government's intention to give grants to communities to tackle alcohol and drug abuse. As the Minister pointed out, there is a link between economic recovery and alcohol abuse. An EU report published last year comparing health care across the European Union has found us to have the fifth highest alcohol consumption in the EU. We also have the joint third highest prevalence rates for obesity among our adult population. These are massive problems that have some inter-relation and it is possibly worth our while and we should be doing all we can to make the public more aware of that link.

The Minister highlighted the influence on crime of alcohol abuse. Research has linked increased alcohol consumption to increased levels of public order crime and other offences. Dr. Paul O'Mahoney of Trinity College raised an interesting point when he spoke about the changed nature of street crime. He said that people did not kick other people in the head 20 or 30 years ago. He said that there was an acceptance that it was a dangerous and cowardly thing to do, that one would have to be madcap to do it, but now, middle-class young people on booze and out of their heads routinely do it. We are all aware of famous fatalities that have occurred in recent years in that context.

We need to look at how alcohol impacts on mental health. The World Health Organization estimates that the risk of alcohol dependence in people diagnosed with schizophrenia is three times the average population risk. For people diagnosed with depression and affective disorders it is 1.9 times the average risk. In people diagnosed with anxiety the risk of alcohol dependence is 1.5 times higher. The World Health Organization also estimates that as many as 70% of male suicides are alcohol-related and this is a very important issue for us to emphasise in the context of our public discussions on both alcohol abuse and on suicide.

We have to be wary of increased illegal smuggling of alcohol and cross-Border shopping occurring when minimum pricing is introduced. That is why I welcome the Minister's indication of the forthcoming co-operation between the Department of Health and authorities in the North on this issue. It seems to me that if there was any kind of a time lag in arrangements to be made that it could cause particular problems with alcohol being cheaper across the Border for a time period.

Supermarkets and off-licence sales now account for a massive proportion of all alcohol sales. I wonder whether it should be considered that offers involving multiple bottles of wine, for example, for a certain price should be restricted so that offers can only relate to the selling of an individual quantity. Otherwise, it is an encouragement of unnecessary or quantity-based drinking, binge drinking in other words. I refer to the Minister speaking about reducing the amount of alcohol that people drink. It seems counter-intuitive to challenge the culture of the pint in Ireland. It is normal on the Continent to order a half pint even if this is uncommon here. A licensing amendment came into force in England a few years ago allowing premises to sell two thirds of a pint size. It was believed that this would help to encourage more responsible drinking and some drinking companies have seen the potential.I almost hesitated to propose it to the Minister until my colleague, Senator Craughwell, reminded me that "deorum", which is such a famous word in the vocabulary of our beloved native Galway, is not only a reference to a quantity of whiskey but is also potentially a reference to a quantity of beer somewhere between half a pint and a full pint. Perhaps it could be quantified as three quarters of a pint, which Senator Craughwell informs me might also be known as a "maydium". Maybe there is potential here for trying to move tentatively, but with determination at the same time, against the culture of the pint.

Perhaps we should also look at the link between alcohol and politics. We know about the link between alcohol and sports. In Australia, the state parliament of New South Wales has approved legislation banning donations to political parties from the alcohol, gambling and tobacco industries. While I suspect that politicians would take a degree of care not to be seen to accept such donations, perhaps some formalisation of our anathema in this regard would be appropriate.

I understand the Minister aims to limit alcohol advertising to children. I am sure he knows as well as I do, or better than I do, how difficult this might be. Children of any age with access to YouTube can instantly view alcohol-related content. According to one piece of research, an average of 6% of views of adult-oriented content are by 13 to 17 year olds. We should consider carefully the report that a major drinks company saw a 20% increase in sales as a result of Facebook activity in one year. Does the Minister have anything to say at this point or at a later stage about what the Government might be able to do to tackle online advertising of alcohol to children? I would certainly be interested to hear about any such plans. Is there any possibility in this respect? I realise that it would be difficult.

I will conclude by asking the Minister about labelling, which he mentioned in his speech in the context of content and health. When I was speaking to a publican recently, he pointed out to me that if he is caught selling alcohol to someone who is under age, the consequences for him financially and reputationally are very severe. As a member of the community in which the pub is located, the publican's name would be dirt. The same publican made the point that binge drinkers generally do not purchase their alcohol in pubs and are much more likely to get it from supermarket multiples or off-licences. They enjoy complete anonymity, in a sense, in the context of the abuse of alcohol. Given that it is possible to label alcohol in various ways, perhaps there should be a legal requirement for the immediate source of alcohol - bottles or cans - to be subject to labelling. This would mean that if alcohol bottles were found in a public park, there would be some evidence of where they were purchased. I do not propose these things lightly because I realise that all such potential measures involve a degree of planning and possibly a degree of expense. I would like to know if it is something that could be looked at. It is not so much a matter of protecting the reputation of publicans, although that is no bad thing in itself if they are acting responsibly. More importantly, it could act as a deterrent to those who would sell alcohol in an irresponsible way. In other words, it would be helpful if we had a means of detecting the point of sale where the alcohol was purchased. Perhaps this is something the Government has considered. Maybe there are many reasons to dismiss the idea. I would be grateful to hear the Minister's views on it. I thank him for listening and I thank the Chair for his indulgence.

Photo of John GilroyJohn Gilroy (Labour)
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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.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I was happy to swap with my colleague Senator Rónán Mullen because I would not have wished him to feel he was being silenced by not being able to contribute to the debate on the forthcoming referendum. I welcome Ms Suzanne Costello from Alcohol Action Ireland, who is in the Visitors Gallery.

I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, to the Seanad and applaud him for what he is doing in this area. I accepted an invitation from the Department of Health to attend a seminar entitled "Influencing Healthy Lifestyles: Nudging or Shoving? The Ethical Debate." It was really informative, and I thank the Minister for extending the invitation to us.

The public health (alcohol) Bill 2015, as the Minister outlined, deals with labelling, minimum unit pricing, marketing, advertising sponsorship, availability and price-based promotions. The Joint Committee on Health and Children, chaired by our excellent Chairman, Deputy Jerry Buttimer, held a series of meeting on the subject and is finalising its report. The Minister came to the final hearing of this series of debates on the heads of the Bill to hear the views of the members. What the Minister said today in the Seanad shows me that he took on board a number of the committee's sentiments with regard to the public health (alcohol) Bill. I thank him.

I note with sadness that according to the OECD report Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy, Ireland has the fourth highest level of alcohol consumption in the OECD, behind Estonia, Austria and France, at 11.7 litres per capitafor those aged 15 years and over. To be placed fourth in this category is not the position we want to hold on this league table.Several of my colleagues have referred to the executive summary of this OECD report, from which I will quote:

Alcohol has an impact on over 200 diseases and types of injuries. In most cases the impact is detrimental, in some cases it is beneficial. In a minority of drinkers, mostly older men who drink lightly, health benefits are larger. ... Harmful drinking is normally the result of an individual choice, but it has social consequences. The harms caused to people other than drinkers themselves, including the victims of traffic accidents and violence, but also children born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, are the most visible face of those social consequences. Health care and crime costs, and lost productivity, are further important dimensions. These provide a strong rationale for governments to take action against harmful alcohol use.
People often talk about the consumption of alcohol by young people and children, but they do not necessarily refer to the impact of alcohol on children in families. We see the figures in reports on domestic violence. The example set by the parents' lifestyle impacts on the household. Senator Colm Burke referred to the students who won the Young Scientist exhibition with their project entitled: "Does the apple fall far from the tree?", who made a presentation to the Joint Committee on Health and Children. In their project they quoted from a recent ISPCC report in which one child noted: "If you see your parents get drunk, whether you like it or not, it will have an effect on your life." What surprised me was that one fifth of parents surveyed were not concerned about the prospect of another parent or adult supplying their adolescent with alcohol. That shows me how normal it is for adolescents to drink alcohol. If the adults in these young people's lives think it is acceptable to buy a young person alcohol, it shows how much needs to be done in informing and educating the adults as well. We have to focus on young people. There is an issue with young people and alcohol which is European-wide, but, as the saying goes, they do not lick it off the ground. The adults in their lives are the role models and they very often set the norms. It is the norm for adults to go to the pub to socialise. We do not have other avenues. We need to ensure we have other avenues and that we provide other examples for our young people.

I fully endorse minimum unit pricing. The excellent report by Dr. John Holmes and Dr. Colin Angus from the University of Sheffield is comprehensive and goes through everything. They have been very open. I have gone back and forth to them with questions and they have been open about addressing any concerns we have. I would be very happy to share this report with colleagues.

I am concerned that the code of practice must be placed on a very strong footing. I have observed how the drinks industry can find every loophole in the system. Could we look at the threshold for the audience profile measurement, which stands at 25% at present? That is far too high. It should be at 10%. I would prefer if there was no alcohol advertising, but at the very least we need to reduce the level of advertising. I raised the issue of online marketing at the committee hearings. We know that some years ago Diageo announced that 21% of its marketing budget would go to online marketing. Recently legislation was introduced in Finland to ban alcohol apps that contained games, location settings and information on the nearest place to drink. Clearly, these apps are targeted at children. It is a social engagement. As my colleagues have said, a young person who visits YouTube will see advertisements for alcohol that I do not see. The drinks industry is very skilled at targeting particular groups. They know what sites and YouTube videos people are looking at, and the advertising is targeted at them. I have seen the effects of this at first hand. If I walk into any classroom and ask children to name their favourite advertisement on television, I guarantee that alcohol advertisements are up there in their choice. The young people score highly on brand recognition.

This brings me to the issue of sports sponsorship. I really believe we should set a date, no mater how far forward it is, to cease all alcohol-related advertising. It is very telling that neither the drinks industry nor the sports organisations will tell us how much sports sponsorship is worth. We do not have a figure. I think that is unacceptable that we do not know what we are talking about. Youth organisations which do so much voluntary work across the country will not take a single cent from the drinks industry, and I do not see the Government being put under pressure to replace it. In fact, the funding of youth organisations was cut by 40% during the recession, yet these organisations are still delivering those services. I acknowledge that some sporting organisations have stopped taking money from the drinks industry, but the sporting organisations who are still taking sponsorship money should let us know how much we are talking about. Last year, a school principal from Munster spoke at an Alcohol Action Ireland hearing on the issue of sports sponsorship.When Munster won what in France is called the H Cup, he invited the team to visit the school and he was delighted a few team members said they would go. They had a great day, but when they arrived with all the sponsorship and drinks advertising, he realised that he, as the principal of the school, had brought alcohol advertising to the school and he apologised to his students for doing so.

How the drinks industry has a handle on us is subliminal and insidious. It is unacceptable and we need to examine it. At a recent hearing, Katherine Brown of the Institute of Alcohol Studies stated alcohol sponsorship of sport is a way past children's bedroom doors because they have a picture of a sporting hero on the bedroom door with the nice alcohol branding linking it to sporting success. She stated that if we are really serious, we need to tackle and deal with the issue of separation.

We also need to address the drinks industry role in decisions taken. I am concerned when I see jobs advertised by certain drinks companies. According to the job descriptions, they want to stay one step ahead of regulatory developments. They want to ensure they can beat the system. They will tell us it is all about education and if we were all more informed, we would all make the choices. I know about education, healthy eating and lifestyle. I am not as good as I should be because it is not what changes my behaviour. This is where legislation is important and why the Minister has my absolute and full support. I want us to go further and to do more. I want us to follow policies like that recently announced by the HSE, whereby it will have no truck with the alcohol industry. Why are the Departments of Education and Skills and Health not coming out with similar statements? The Child and Family Agency is thinking about it. It should have no truck with the drinks industry. We must do a lot more in Ireland.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister. I compliment him on what he has said on Portlaoise, Swinford and the high level of medical negligence claims he is dealing with. I very much like what he says on all of these issues and on the enhanced role of ambulances.

On this particular issue, mere alcohol does not thrill me at all. I do not go to pubs. I am probably responsible for one of the 590 pubs which have shut in recent years. I am seriously concerned about a groupthink herd instinct. The Garda figures show 8,762 drunkenness offences were committed last year. This means 499 of 500 people in Ireland were not drunk. There are also doubts about what is happening to consumption. Alcohol Action Ireland sent me information during the week that alcohol consumption in Ireland peaked in 1999 at 14.5 litres per capitaand has reduced to 11.5 litres per capita. Let us keep this in perspective. Many countries, particularly around the Mediterranean, do not have the alcohol fixation which has grown, especially in the medical profession, in this country. I have been with young people from many decades. They are far better on this matter than the generation which preceded them. I came to Leinster House thinking the Dáil bar was full of transmogrified people but I have never seen anyone in that condition. The same is said about academics and journalists. Consumption is falling. Other countries come to terms with alcohol. The Garda reports do not have the type of exaggeration I have seen elsewhere. Public order offences have been reducing dramatically over the past four years and this is acknowledged in the Garda report.

I saw the OECD numbers, which my good friend mentioned, but in the WHO numbers I counted 13 EU countries which have higher alcohol consumption than we do. I downloaded the numbers from Wikipedia before I came here. The Economist World in Figuresshows Ireland is quite far down the list in terms of alcohol consumption, and places such as Australia and the Czech Republic are much higher. Let us get the problem in perspective and let us have accurate data.

Minimum pricing is a boost to the industry because something is being sold for X but the Government insists 2X must be paid. We did this with regard to pub licences in the previous century and it seriously enriched publicans in every town in Ireland until 20 or 30 years ago when the supermarket took over. We enriched pubs by a measure which was supposed to promote temperance. Minimum pricing puts the money into the industry's kitty and it will laugh all the way to the bank. If we want to increase the price I nominate the Ministers, Deputies Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, in the Exchequer to get the money and not to give it to the industry in this way.

If certain forms of retailing do a better job than the traditional Irish pub, it is economic progress. Why are we intervening to say the low-cost people are doing damage? There are also serious income distribution aspects. We are saying a bottle of Château d'Yquem consumed by people who are extremely rich is not affected because they never get drunk so we should go for people on low incomes and give them the hammer by increasing the minimum price. Instead of this, let us look at the 8,762 drunkenness offences, and come up measures to deal with those who do have an alcohol problem and not intervene in the lives of people who do not have one, are not affected by one and have managed to treat this as a normal commodity as people around the Mediterranean typically do.

I am concerned there seem to be vast differences in the statistics and what way the industry is going, whether it is expanding or contracting, and how our consumption compares with that of other countries. The WHO numbers put Belarus way ahead of us, and the EU countries ahead of us include Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Portugal, Poland and Finland. Its 2015 projection of 10.9 litres is pretty much average and is the same as Germany, Spain and Belgium. I worry when there is an emphasis on political correctness galloping in one direction and perhaps not looking at the evidence. Let us ensure we have the evidence when the legislation comes before us. If instead of this effort more can be done to help the Minister in the mainstream of the health service, I would be delighted to support him, which is why I mentioned the endeavours in which he is currently engaged.

Imagining that other people drink too much and the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, has a duty to intervene, and saying we are unable to persuade this relatively small number or to do anything else for them except these blanket measures requires much evaluation between now and the production of the Bill. I share the Minister's goals but I have been concerned about the fairly strange use of statistics in this debate. It does not correspond with what I see, particularly among young people. The most dramatic statistic comes under the Minister's previous portfolio and is the reduction in driving accidents from 650 fatalities per year to 160. There is a responsible generation. The Parliament talking up the drunken Paddy image, which the figures do not support, is wrong. Let us make sure it is properly based.

Photo of Mary Ann O'BrienMary Ann O'Brien (Independent)
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None of us here or anyone in society needs to be persuaded of the dreaded problems and costs Ireland faces by misuse and abuse of alcohol. When I was preparing for this and thinking about it over the weekend, I doodled and made a mind map. Sadly, I could not come up with too many pluses.The pluses are all gorgeous and include power, money, glamour, fun, cool, sexy, fast and fabulous. The minuses include words such as rape, suicide, cancer, cheap, mental health, depression, low self-esteem, stress, incredible cost to the State - I could not count the zeros, I am not able for billions but it is a hell of a lot - suffering for children, sex abuse, misery, domestic violence, 2,000 hospital beds every night, premature deaths, crime, murder and death. That was my mind map and I almost do not need to finish my speech because I am going to flatter the Minister. He is a good and particularly strong politician and an excellent Minister for Health. I am pleased to be here this evening because this Bill needs strong political leadership that puts the interests of our citizens ahead of the fortunes and power of the alcohol industry. I welcome the Minister's speech and his impressive critical path. The Bill will be published before the summer break and I hope we can get on with it the moment we return in September because we are keen to work hard, to burn the midnight oil and to go into the detail of the Bill.

Alcohol sponsorship of sports needs to go. It is black and white - all sponsorship must go, with no signage whatsoever or promotional branded merchandise. This includes music festivals, with apologies to the Cork Jazz Festival and the Dublin International Film Festival. We all love sport and recognise it as one of the great joys in our society, which contributes greatly to healthy habits. We need money to promote sport but according to the European Sponsorship Association, the largest sponsors of sporting events were telecommunications, clothing, banking, finance, cars, airlines, insurance companies, electronics, energy, oil and credit cards. The alcohol industry was not present among the top ten industry sponsors, indicating there are definitely other sources of revenue. I will have a word with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. I was the sponsorship manager for the Phoenix Park Racecourse for ten years. I do not think the Minister was even born at that time. It was my job to have every race, every day, sponsored to a high level and it was the only racecourse in the world to do so. At the end of my ten years there, the owners wanted to hold the richest sporting event ever staged in Europe, which we did. It was the first £1 million sporting event and a jewellery store, Cartier, from France sponsored it. We do not need alcohol sponsorship. I told the Minister that story because pushing it to 2019 is too big a window to give the sports industry to get its act together. If I was the sponsorship manager, two years would give me enough time and there are all those industries I have mentioned. The Minister and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport should not be afraid. The Government works in silos but it must be holistic in this case. This involves the Ministers for Education and Skills, Transport, Tourism and Sport, Health and the Taoiseach. We are all in on this.

There is something precious about our culture in Ireland. Unfortunately, we all know that alcohol is mixed in with our culture. Most of us like a glass of wine but we know alcohol has its place. Recently Senator van Turnhout and I attended a most wonderful conference about women and alcohol at which we learned a lot. The Minister for Health is a doctor and knows that no alcohol is good for one. There is no such thing as a glass of whiskey or one glass of red wine being good for stress.

There is much more to say but when we have the Bill before us, we can get into its detail. According to the World Health Organization, WHO, public health policies concerning alcohol need to be formulated by public health interests without interference from commercial interests. No drinks company or any commercial company which profits from alcohol should ever have any door opening to discuss future government policies about alcohol.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I know it has been a tough day in the office for the Minister and I very much appreciate his being here for this debate. For most of my young life, I was around drink in one way or another. My second job at the age of 12, which was a summer job, was as a waiter in a bar. By the time I was 13, I had graduated to be a barman in the same bar and by the time I was 15 and a half, I had run a bar in Lisdoonvarna on my own. My father was very drink aware and bought me my first drink on my 15th birthday. He sat me down with a pint of Guinness and said: “There you go son, drink that and don't ever be afraid to have a drink again for the rest of your life.” He ruined my teenage years because there was no sneaking into the house drunk or sneaking anywhere. He did not mind if I had a drink. As a result, I never really had much interest in it.

I grew up and at the usual births, marriages and deaths, we drank, had fun at some of them and cried at more of them. It did not bother me until about four years ago. I never worried about drink or saw any real danger in it but four years ago, I saw a man whom I loved deteriorate over several years. It started off with a couple of drinks after work but then it became several drinks, binges and getting lost in Europe and my having to find him. I watched his life disintegrate around me. I remember one time going to Spain to find him, arriving at a house at 2 a.m. and finding him sitting in the middle of the sitting room surrounded by empty bottles of Bacardi. I saw the ruination of a human, his absolute destruction. I remember thinking I could cure him. I locked himself and myself in a bedroom because he wanted drink and I did not want him to have one. I nearly killed him. I did not realise at the time that one cannot do cold turkey with somebody like that.

My opinion of drink and the drink culture in Ireland changed over those few years. I started to notice people, not teenagers but those in their mid-20s and 30s, falling around the streets of Dublin, footless. I met colleagues and friends who could not remember where they had been the night before or what they had done. I have to pay some degree of compliment to Alcoholics Anonymous. They are a tremendous group of people who are there at all times, day and night, to support those who want to try to give up the demon drink.

Yesterday, I listened to Deputy Shortall on the radio talking about takeaways and chippers in Dublin, delivering chips, pizza, Chinese meals, burgers or whatever else with a six-pack, a half bottle of whiskey or a couple of bottles of wine. Something has gone terribly wrong in our country if that is how we are beginning to live. Yesterday, on the same programme, I heard about drink-driven anti-social behaviour and, in some cases, the people before the courts could not remember what they had done. All of a sudden the innocent behaviour of having a couple of pints is no longer innocent.

I agree with my colleague, Senator Barrett, in that I am not so sure that pricing drink out of the reach of the community is the way forward. Several things must happen. There must be an education programme and a drink awareness programme, which is not funded by the drinks industry but by those in education. We have to educate young people in schools.

In regard to the heads of the Bill and labelling, when we talk about grams and so on, as a rather portly man who tries to watch his diet, when I read the labels on the back of boxes for the most part I cannot figure out what they are saying, so I just eat what I feel like eating. There is some truth in what Senator Barrett said about minimum unit pricing. Should we penalise those who cannot afford to buy the more expensive drinks?We must find a way. We also must find a way to stop the six young fellows I passed on Sunday afternoon who were climbing over a fence with four or five six-packs to go into a broken down house and drink for the afternoon. I would swear they were not over 13 years of age. We must get rid of the cheap rubbish that these young guys are drinking.

On the marketing, advertising and sponsorship, I can already hear the sports sector screaming. We must stop sponsoring sport through alcohol. It is the only way forward. Definitely, we must do something on enforcement. Finally, price-based promotions, such as six for the price of five or three for the price of two, must stop.

I commend Deputy Varadkar, who, as has already been pointed out, is an exemplary Minister for Health, on this initiative. He has probably seen more during his training years of drink and the need for drink awareness than most of us. I commend him and I will support him in any way I can.

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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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.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senators for having this timely and important debate on alcohol. I particularly thank them for their kind words about me and my performance as Minister for Health. To be honest, some days I do not feel I am achieving an awful lot. There is so much going on in any given day, so many moving parts and so many different interest groups, that it is really difficult to get a grip on matters, but I am determined that this will be one of the areas in which we will have a clear outcome, by having this legislation enacted before we all finish our current terms in the Dáil and Seanad.

I will touch briefly on a few points that were made. Senator Mullen asked whether we can provide retail labelling. It would be a good idea to be able to trace back a can or bottle to a particular off-licence. I am sure it is possible. It is done to an extent in some places. I am sure it is also possible to get around it quite easily. As is so often the case with such matters, it is the reputable operators who will co-operate, while those who are not will not. We will certainly examine that as something that we could perhaps add to the proposed Bill if it is possible, because, intuitively, it makes sense. I am aware that some shops in my constituency have been caught for selling alcohol to those below age and really only got a slap on the wrist. In my view, the sanctions have not been satisfactory.

On sports sponsorship, what is intended is not only to put the existing code on a statutory footing; it is to take the existing code, strengthen it and put it into regulations, which will then be enforced by the environmental health officers and can be strengthened as time goes on.It was a Government decision not to press ahead with an outright ban on sports sponsorship. Various options were on the table, including the possibility of putting it into law but not enacting it until the Minister for Health and the Minister with responsibility for sport were satisfied it was the right time to do so. It was not possible to get agreement on this, but we do have agreement that the situation will be reviewed within three years of enactment of the Bill, at which point we may be able to bring in further measures. I do not like comparing tobacco to alcohol because they are different, but if one took everything that has been done about alcohol over the past 20 years and put them into one Bill 20 years ago, it would never have been passed. Sometimes in politics we need to embrace the power of incrementalism and do 70% now, 10% a bit later, 5% after that and sooner or later we get to 100%. There will always be those in society who want to turn back the clock but we will leave that for another debate on another day.

On online advertising, I just spoke to my senior official in this area, Geraldine Luddy. We have been in touch with the Finnish authorities to better understand what they have done. We do not have the full information back from them yet. We have been in touch with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources because anything done about online or Internet advertising probably has to be done at European or international level. It is the world wide web after all. We want to understand what was done in Finland to see if we could do something similar here and incorporate it in the Bill.

I particularly welcome Senator Barrett's contrarian view. It is important that we have contrarian views in Parliament. I will take a look at his alternative statistics. I want to take a look at them to understand them for myself. Sometimes what can skew statistics is whether teetotallers are included. In Ireland, we have a lot of people who abstain entirely from alcohol. They make our figures look better than they really are. When account is taken of the 80% who drink, we probably do drink very heavily. As we have a younger population and more children, we need to ensure our statistics are age adjusted to take account of the fact that by and large people under ten and, hopefully, people under 15 do not drink. I agree with the Senator on the Mediterranean culture. Unfortunately, it is not possible to legislate to change the culture of this country to a Mediterranean one but perhaps it will come over time with a more responsible attitude towards alcohol.

On minimum unit pricing, I do not think it will be a boost to the industry. If it is a boost to the industry, it will have failed. If it brings in any additional tax revenue or VAT, it will also have failed. Minimum unit pricing is only successful if it reduces consumption. If it reduces consumption there will be no benefit for the manufacturers as they will be selling less product and there will be no benefit for the taxpayer either, at least not in terms of direct tax income, because if it works one would expect revenues to fall. This is why I am always very cautious about people suggesting that we ring-fence the additional money that will come from VAT on minimum unit pricing for other purposes, because if it actually works it should reduce consumption and therefore we will have less revenue from alcohol.

Senators O'Brien and Craughwell made the very valid point there should not be interference or funding by the drinks industry for any public health measure. I agree very strongly with this. This is the approach I will take. I have not been directly lobbied by the drinks industry since I have been in this position, and very little before it, although it may go about things in other ways through small retailers. We will have the same stuff once the Bill really lands and people understand how far it goes and start wondering about regulations. We will face all the usual stuff, that we are closing down rural Ireland and small shops. I expect the lobbying will come in a roundabout route as it often does although not this time from the pubs because they are largely supportive of it, but from sports, the arts and small stores. We need to be very wary of this and I would welcome the support of Senators in this regard.

I will return to the Seanad many times between now and the summer recess. I particularly look forward to returning early in the autumn session to bring this legislation before it. Depending on how things go, I may even bring it to the Seanad before the Dáil, with the agreement of the House. Let us try to get this through before Christmas.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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At 10:30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 7:55 p.m. until 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 13 May 2015.