Alcohol Abuse.

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.

The health promotion unit of the Department of Health and Children has been actively involved in a wide range of initiatives aimed at tackling alcohol misuse. Many of these initiatives involve both cross-departmental and cross-sectoral action. These include a primary school substance misuse prevention programme called, Walk Tall. It was initially developed for the designated drug task force areas. However, it has been extended nationwide and is now part of the social, personal and health education curriculum in primary schools. The programmes are developed and delivered in co-operation with the Department of Education and Science, health boards and teachers.

Adolescents are targeted through the substance abuse prevention programme called, On My Own Two Feet, a life skills approach within the broad concept of the health promoting school. This programme is also part of the social, personal and health education curriculum in post-primary schools.

A framework for developing a college alcohol policy was developed by the health promotion unit following extensive consultations with the universities and institutes of technology as well as the Union of Students in Ireland. The framework is designed to assist colleges to develop policies to promote sensible drinking among students and limit alcohol related harm on campus. It was developed following concerns raised by colleges on a number of issues, including alcohol promotion practices on campus, high risk drinking among students, the impact of this drinking pattern on academic achievement, student personal problems and student attrition.

Youth groups in the informal sector are supported by the National Youth Council of Ireland health promotion programme funded by the health promotion unit. Through this scheme youth leaders working in local communities are provided with training. It offers ongoing health education and health promotion training to the out-of-school sector. The programme specifically provides youth organisations with training on substance abuse policy development and alcohol education.

The development of the responsible serving of alcohol programme was also a joint initiative between the health promotion unit, the drinks industry and CERT. The programme was developed specifically for those who work in the bar trade and hospitality sector. Its objective is to limit harm in the drinking environment by not serving intoxicated customers, encouraging the use of age cards as standard practice and promoting alternative strategies to reduce drink driving.

The health promotion unit is also represented on other alcohol related initiatives such as the commission on liquor licensing established by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda youth advisory group established by the Garda Commissioner.

In January this year the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, also established a strategic task force on alcohol under the chairmanship of the chief medical officer of the Department. The task force is broadly based and representative of experts from Departments, health boards, NGOs, public health, health promotion, health and safety, education, the Garda Síochána, sports and recreation, parents, the drinks industry, alcohol treatment services and the health promotion unit.

The task force produced an interim report in May this year. I understand the recommendations contained in the position paper referred to by the Deputy and which was drafted in September broadly reflect those of the task force. The implementation of the task force recommendations will require a co-ordinated multi-sectoral response and I am confident that the support needed from other statutory and non-statutory agencies will be forthcoming in this regard.