Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill. I strongly support the thrust of the Bill. Some small issues still remain to be dealt with concerning craft beer, for example, because that industry does not have the advertising power to do the damage alcohol does in society. I am not against making minor changes to the legislation but we cannot pull back in terms of the big import of the Bill. We all heard reports in the past week of what happened in Bandon where young people went to a non-drink disco totally tanked up and a field hospital had to be set up to deal with them. I am not against people having a drink and I am not against people having a good time but to me that was neither; it was a total abuse of alcohol. To say that advertising, availability, and the society we have created has nothing to do with that is to deny reality. Let us be honest about it; drinking habits have changed dramatically over the years. There was a time when young people in particular tended to drink beer and they thought they were big people doing that. Now it seems that the drink of choice is hard spirits in a totally unregulated situation, often outside of places where there is no control whatsoever. Therefore, anything that can be done to control such drinking should be done.

There are powerful industries out there that always promote their side of the argument with powerful money. They say it is good for the economy and they also say they have drink awareness programmes to try to discourage people from over-abusing alcohol. The reality is the drinks industry is about selling drink and it focuses on young people in particular. A lot of advertising is about glamorising drink and much of it is ruthless and focused. The notion that such companies spend millions of euro on the promotion of alcohol and that they are not aware of the harm it does is absolutely false. We also hear the argument that the purpose of advertising is a brand competition and that they are not trying to encourage people to drink or to drink more is also false. We know there is a huge problem with alcohol in society. It is an attitude problem.

We hear time and again about the problems in hospitals. Anyone who examines the admissions to accident and emergency units at weekends, in particular, or when young people or adults are out "enjoying" themselves must recognise that alcohol is a major cause of the problems in hospitals. We are storing up a massive problem for the future due to the increased habit of drinking hard drinks to excess. Many young people who think they are healthy will wind up with drink-related conditions affecting the liver, for example, later in life. The prospect is absolutely frightening.

When I was a Minister of State with some of the same responsibilities as the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, I had many meetings with Sr. Consilio and I visited Cuan Mhuire. It is only when one listens to people like her or those involved in Hope House that one realises the damage done by alcohol in society. The people in such places are the ones who seek treatment. One could ask how many people do not seek treatment. We know of the damage that is done in families by drink. We know of the violence that is associated with drink and how many innocent people get hurt by drink. Despite all of that the drinks lobby tries to lure us into a state of denial and tells us we do not have a problem. Therefore, the Bill is very timely. In fact, it is fair to say that it is a pity it has taken so long.

The off-licence industry is a problem. Anybody who tells me it is not does not know what is going on. We see young people with massive amounts of drink who are consuming it without any control from parents or from a publican, if they were in a public house or members of the public in the public house. They have to get the drink somewhere and it tends to be in off-licences. Therefore, anything we can do to make it more difficult to access drink must be taken on board.

I accept that there are different ways of doing that, including ways that are more or less expensive for the shop owner. Amendments were made during the debate in the Seanad to cut down on costs, but not to cut down on the effect of the Bill, which has to be to try to make alcohol less visible, less attractive and less normal.

I wonder what effect it would have on our society if we could reduce the abuse of alcohol by a quarter, which we might think would be a fairly modest target. What effect would it have on the number of court cases going to court? What effect would it have on the number of young people getting in trouble with the law for doing absolutely crazy things while drunk and getting criminal convictions, where they should have none, as a consequence? What difference would it make to the health services? We are always complaining that health services do not get enough money, but we never ask ourselves how many people add unnecessarily to the cost of providing such services through totally irresponsible behaviour that is encouraged by a very powerful industry. It is only when all of these factors are weighed up that we realise we need to tackle this issue.

It was very interesting to listen to the radio the other day and to the two doctors who spoke, who were very reasonable. The interesting fact that came out was that very few drinks are spiked and that the main spiking of drinks is just adding more and harder alcohol, including spirits. That is what is happening and we can delude ourselves as much as we want that it is something more sinister. Usually, the explanations are simpler.

We must also recognise that this is a very sensitive subject. Statistics show us that alcohol has been a contributor to suicide in certain cases. It is something that is very difficult to talk about because so many families have been hurt by suicide. Currently, there is much talk about reducing the number of car accidents and car fatalities, which, thanks be to God, is well under 200. However, what we totally ignore is that more than 500 people die by suicide every year and that in an appreciable number of cases alcohol has been a contributory factor.

The Committee Stage of this Bill will deal with the smaller points by way of minor amendments. It is a good idea, which I always support, that Bills get a thorough airing and that they are looked at in some detail to see that one is not doing something which will have no benefit. The labelling of craft beer is an obvious example. That is not the kind of market to go for anyway because it does not engage in mass advertising. We must make sure we do not dilute the main and powerful thrust of this Bill.

I could never understand when in government that we could not seem to introduce minimum pricing. Arguments were put forward that EU law would not allow it but I understand that has been overcome in Scotland which went ahead, faced it head on and took on the challenge. That is the most powerful deterrent one could introduce. Some people will say this will impact the poor but I do not believe that will happen because people have a fixed amount of money and, therefore, it could help them substantially because it could mean less consumption, less damage and a more justifiable reason for not over-indulging in alcohol.

I am pleased that this Bill has eventually been brought before the House. We have to face up to the society in which we live and face up to the fact that by standing back we are hurting so many people, both young and old in our society. We have to stop glorifying as a rite of passage the kind of abuse of alcohol we have seen in more recent decades. I believe that has to change. One of the small benefits that came from the downturn was a reduction in alcohol abuse, but that is quickly disappearing again. We have a major problem with drugs in this country - it is a problem in Dublin and it is now a problem in Galway - but the most pervasive drug that does serious harm in our society is alcohol. The targeting of where alcohol is available without supervision has to be key to the future. I spend my Saturday afternoons visiting country pubs. I am often in pubs for meetings at night. I can honestly say I do not believe the major issue arises in the supervised and controlled setting of the public house. Most people will not do in public what they will do in private. We have many cases of this.

Many women will accept that a great deal of violence against women is caused by intoxicated men. That is something we can never forget. Many of us have come across people in our lives who have been assaulted and worse. In many such cases, one of the contributory causes has been that the men involved have literally drunk themselves stupid. Tá mé ag tacú leis an mhéid atá á dhéanamh ag an Rialtas. Tá súil agam go mbeidh sé ina dhlí go luath agus tá súil agam go mbeidh an-éifeacht aige. Teastaíonn go géar uainn déileáil leis an bhfadhb seo agus caithfimid é sin a dhéanamh.

I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this important Bill. When this Bill started off, people were looking to curtail binge drinking and provide for minimum unit pricing. Those were the objectives, but the Bill has strayed now. To be honest, it has gone haywire. The notion of introducing a cancer warning label that would cover one third of the packaging of alcohol products was added to the legislation before Christmas. I have nothing personal against the Minister of State - I have nothing at all to say to her - but I wonder whether those who make such proposals really know what they are talking about. Small distilleries and little brewing companies around the country are employing people. They are giving good employment and competing on the world market with Scotch whisky and other different whiskeys from around the world that do not need to have these cancer labels. I am pro-jobs. I do not intend to support this Bill because it will hurt people who are employed in parts of County Kerry like Killarney and Dingle, where they are doing great work. I believe these measures will do more harm than good. No other country in the world has introduced mandatory cancer warnings on alcohol products. We really needed to see if we could reduce binge drinking and reduce the minimum pricing.

However, this is not being done. If we go back 20 or 25 years, young fellows used to go to a bar with older brothers, parents or uncles and were trained how to drink two or maybe three pints. They enjoyed the banter and communication with people from the parish or locality. This no longer happens because young people now drink on one or possibly two nights at the weekend. It was different in the past because the same closing time applied to all licensed premises. Nowadays, later closing times apply to a small number of venues in cities and large towns where youngsters and inclined to go for a late drink. They are not among their own, however, and meet many different people who they do not know. They are losing out because going out is now an anonymous activity, whereas in the past people went out for the banter and to talk about football or what was going on in the locality or on the local farms. I do not know how we can get back to that but if we were try to do so, we might achieve something.

The Bill is being proposed when the Irish beer and whiskey sectors are experiencing a period of promising growth. They stuck with it for the past eight or nine years and survived. Now that they are coming out the other end, they are about to be blown out of existence by the proposed cancer warnings on alcohol product labels. We have a great distillery in Dingle and the Killarney Brewing Company on the Muckross Road. The brewery's visitor centre attracts tourists every day during the summer and is an attraction for the town. This Bill will hurt companies such as this. How can producers compete with producers from countries such as Scotland where cancer warnings are not required on labels for Scotch whisky? A requirement to place cancer warnings on alcohol product labels will have a damaging impact on small distilleries and breweries that are bringing new products to the market. The notion that producers should be required to produce a label for the Irish market only will create additional costs for them, particularly small craft brewers and whiskey distillers. If they are in a position to export, they will have to produce one label for Ireland and another for the rest of the world. Redesigning labels has associated costs which will add yet more to the costs incurred by small drinks companies that support and create local jobs.

We must remember that Friday evening does not take long coming for people who have staff to pay. I know what it is like to be an employer because I have been employing people for years. Friday evening comes very fast.

Will the cancer warning labels work? It is worth considering whether the introduction of such labels will solve our problems with harmful and underage drinking. We must also balance this with the harm they will do to the industry. I do not believe they will have any effect on young people because they will soon find out that the product is the same as it was before the label was placed on it. The measure will hurt exporters, however.

Focusing on only one health issue is confusing for consumers. I suggest the Department of Health rolls out an education campaign informing people of the recommended drinking guidelines, rather than placing cancer warnings on bottles because the measure is unlikely to work.

If we removed alcohol completely, people would turn to something else. They are already turning to drugs. I wonder if cancer labels are put on drugs in the places they come from.

The Bill will introduce new rules on alcohol advertisements, including where they can be shown, which is a ridiculous provision. If people know a bottle of whiskey or wine is behind a curtain in a shop, it will not make a difference but it will harm small shops because they will have to implement the measure in the small space available to them.

The proposed measures will prevent alcohol companies from including a storyline in advertisements. This is too strict and will negatively impact the drinks industry. It means small producers will not be able to gain market share or grow to a sufficient size to export their products. The advertising restrictions will also make it more difficult for new entrants to bring products to the Irish market. Evidence shows that these restrictions will cost Irish media €20 million per annum in lost revenue.

I feel for the businesses that are providing jobs. Visitor centres attached to whiskey distilleries are an attraction. I am particularly concerned that the Bill spells trouble for Irish whiskey tourism. The new measures will impact on advertisements for whiskey distillery visitor centres that contain the name of the brand. Visitor centre advertisements will not be allowed to contain images of people or use storylines. Advertisements will be prohibited from train stations and bus stops and from within 200 m of schools and crèches. I ask the Minister to give special consideration to the impact of the Bill on visitor centres. I am worried about businesses that are trying to get off the ground and those that have stuck it out for the past eight or nine years and are trying to provide jobs.

The Bill has strayed from its original purpose. It has gone off the rails altogether and is losing support for that reason. We all want to tackle the problems of harmful and underage drinking but extreme legislation is not always good legislation. I ask the Minister to consider the points I have raised and identify what small changes could be made to the Bill to address these concerns. Nobody is interested in scuppering the legislation. The issue is one of making sensible changes that will create balance. For this reason, I ask the Minister to revisit the Bill. If the Government were to stick to the original intention of introducing minimum pricing and if it tried to address the issue of teenagers being lured into a small number of large, open venues, we would achieve a better outcome.

Debate adjourned.