I am pleased the Ceann Comhairle has given me the opportunity to raise this important issue. I recently asked the Minister for Health and Children the cross-departmental action that should task place in light of recent surveys, especially by the association for health promotion which outlines in its paper the significant ramifications of our drink culture. The association for health board promotion in its executive summary states that alcohol has traditionally been the drug of choice in Ireland. The Minister of State with responsibility for drugs, Deputy Noel Ahern, should take over responsibility for alcohol abuse, which is currently the responsibility of the Minister for Health and Children. If alcohol is a drug, it is important it is under the remit of the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, considering his role in the task forces on drugs. This change of roles should enable the Minister of State to co-ordinate the action in different spheres which is not co-ordinated and, therefore, is ineffective.
I am aware of the strategic task force on alcohol but the implementation of its recommendations will require a co-ordinated multi-sectoral response – I refer to the parliamentary questions I put down today. This matter should be progressed as soon as possible. There is not only an under age drinking problem in Ireland but a drink culture. It is easy to pass this off as an under age problem but it is more than that. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform said today that legislative measures, together with initiatives such as the age card scheme, can help to curtail the problems. However, the Minister said that they cannot be viewed as the only solution and that everybody must work together. This will not happen without action at cross-departmental level. That action is needed now and if we do not realise that, we are far removed from our work as public representatives and the people we represent.
The statistics on this issue have shocked me. Per capita consumption of alcohol has increased by 41% in the decade 1989-99; Irish teens rank among the highest in Europe for all measures of alcohol consumption; alcohol is a primary cause of 33% of fatal road accidents and a factor in 40% of road collisions – the Minister for Transport must look at that closely; alcohol is a contributory factor in unwanted pregnancies and in teenage sexual activity; and 48% of all criminal offences are alcohol related, as are 88% of public order offences, 48% of offences against the person and 54% of criminal damage offences. That is significant and if the problem was addressed, it would halve the current crime level.
There has been a 370% increase in the detection of intoxication in public places by under age drinkers since 1996; one in four of those presenting to accident and emergency units have an alcohol related injury or illness; access to alcohol is an increasingly important factor in teenage suicides; and alcohol is related to many cancers, a point which was supported by a study released yesterday which claimed that women are six times more likely to develop breast cancer if they drink one glass of wine per day. Heavy intake of alcohol is associated with chronic conditions such as stroke, hypertension, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis; one third of marital breakdown is attributed to alcohol; 26% of all male and 11% of all female first admissions to psychiatric services are due to alcohol related diagnosis; alcohol causes problems for the unborn child; and the most important statistic is the economic cost of alcohol-related problems – approximately €2.37 billion in 1999. That figure covers health care costs, accidents, crime, absenteeism, transfer payments and lost taxes, and is equivalent to 60% of the total revenue to the Exchequer from alcohol.
If those figures do not speak for themselves and if the Ministers involved do not see this as an important aspect of their policy making, I should sit down at this point. However, our Ministers are aware of this and there is a willingness to deal with the problem. People are working on this like hamsters on a wheel. Everybody is moving on their little wheel whereas if they all got on to one big wheel, there would be much greater progress.
We understand the problem and how it needs to be addressed. Hard decisions need to be taken by the Minister for Health and Children regarding cigarette use and abuse, and I was heavily involved in that process as convenor of the health committee in the last Dáil. We have many potential advantages in dealing with this problem. For a bright future, I ask that activities be co-ordinated and brought under the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern.