I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Róisín Shortall, to the House.
Alcohol Pricing: Motion
That Seanad Éireann:
accepts that we need to enforce a minimum price for alcohol, based on the price per unit of alcohol;
notes that selling alcohol for below cost price is an incentive to the purchase of alcohol;
notes that excessive consumption of alcohol is damaging for the health of individuals;
notes that the average age for a first drinking experience is declining;
recognises that below cost selling of alcohol can be damaging for individuals, families and communities; and
recognises that alcohol-related crimes have risen in the decade from 2001 to 2011.
I, too, welcome the Minister of State to the House. Alcohol, the purchase of alcohol and alcohol abuse comprise a problem that must be tackled. This motion outlines some methods that we can use to begin to tackle it. Affordability and easy access, as acknowledged by many reports in this field, are the two chief problems that need to be addressed to curb consumption. When talking about affordability and easy access, we need to draw a distinction between off-trade, which is that of off-licences, and on-trade, which is that of pubs. Put simply, the minimum price per unit of alcohol is not designed to hurt Irish pubs or stop business.
It is clear that the majority of people who go to their local pub for a social drink act sensibly and responsibly. However, it is important that we protect vulnerable and susceptible people in society. A six pack of beer bought from an off-licence can cost between €1 and €2 per can, a price which under-age drinkers can easily afford. Providing they have access to an older relative or friend who is willing to make the purchase, these youngsters can obtain a decent amount of alcohol for a relatively small cost.
It makes sense to introduce this initiative because the health and economic benefits are clear. In regard to health implications, Alcohol Action Ireland has pointed out that an Irish male can reach his low risk drinking limit for less than €10, while a female can reach her limit at €6. These are off-trade prices and they equate approximately to one hour's work on the minimum wage. The motion before us begins to address this problem. An EU health report concluded that the affordability of alcohol in Ireland rose by 50% between 1996 and 2004 and suggested that an increase of 1% in affordability results in an increase of 0.22% in consumption. It is plain that increases in alcohol affordability, particularly in the off-trade environment, have been accompanied by increases in consumption. A decrease in affordability can be expected to have an inverse effect.
That the off-trade business is booming is evident from the fivefold increase in the number of off-licences between 1990 and 2006. Last year a "Prime Time" programme highlighted the ease with which under-age children could obtain alcohol through delivery services.
Accessibility and affordability are key problems which must be addressed if we are to make progress on this issue. The sensible solution is to set a minimum price for alcohol based on the price per unit. Senators van Turnhout and Crown have made valuable proposals on amending our motion and, in the interest of harmony, I am happy to include their suggestions on describing alcohol content in grams as well as units in order to pre-empt future changes to measurements.
There can be no ambiguity about the cost of alcohol to the economy. It is estimated that alcohol abuse cost Ireland €3.7 billion in 2007 and treating alcohol related problems in hospitals costs the health system an estimated €1.3 billion per year. The increased costs associated with vandalism and work absenteeism can also be attributed to excessive alcohol consumption. The combined cost of these social and economic problems are approximately €1.5 billion. The chief medical officer estimated that a 30% reduction in alcohol abuse would save €1 billion for the taxpayer, not to mention the numerous lives, families and communities that would benefit from such a change.
We need to bring about a change in our attitudes and, by introducing a minimum price for alcohol we can begin to effect that change. By curbing the quantities of alcohol bought and consumed outside the pub environment, we will foster changes in attitudes towards alcohol and a decline in its abuse.
The health implications of alcohol are plain. There is a clear link between alcohol and depression. Most suicide attempts occur when the individual concerned has consumed alcohol. We need to discuss this problematic relationship openly and maturely. The days of denying these problems and their causes are over. Alcohol related deaths have increased steadily between 1995 and today. As many as 30% of injury related admissions to emergency departments are due to alcohol. A floor price for alcohol would reduce consumption and, in turn, the number of alcohol related illnesses, suicides and deaths.
This proposal is not unprecedented. A national price initiative taken in Canada is regarded as a success story and in March 2011 the Northern Ireland Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety proposed a minimum price for alcohol sold in the North. Under the latter proposal the minimum price for a bottle of wine would be between £4 and £7 and a six-pack of beer would cost between £4.40 and £7.70. These prices are designed to impact on the booming off-trade environment. If possible, we should reach a cross-Border agreement on minimum alcohol prices. If Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland decide to introduce minimum pricing, we should attempt to co-ordinate prices for obvious economic reasons. If similar initiatives are not taken in the North people in Border counties will be able to travel north to buy alcohol for cheaper prices.
In the 1990s, eight out of ten Canadian provinces introduced social reference pricing, whereby a floor price was set for alcohol. This initiative was considered a success, with a Canadian addiction research centre stating there was clear evidence that minimum pricing had significantly reduced alcohol consumption. The level of alcohol consumptionper capita is far lower in Canada than in Ireland. An annual average of 9.77 litres of alcohol is consumed per person in Canada, compared with a figure of 14.41 litres in Ireland.
For a multitude of reasons relating to business, society, health and crime, we need to enforce a minimum price for alcohol and I am proud to commend the motion to the House.
I second the motion and thank my colleague for taking the initiative at a Fine Gael Parliamentary Party to research and draft the proposals contained therein.
I was a member of Cork City Council for 12 years. I represented an area around UCC where huge changes have occurred in alcohol consumption patterns over that period. Whereas pubs were previously a common social outlet for young people, four have closed within a half mile radius of UCC in the past five years because increasing numbers of people are drinking at home. The off-trade has increased dramatically and it is not unusual to see students carrying slabs of beer out of off-licences on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. This will impact on our health services because, while bar owners decide when a customer has consumed sufficient alcohol, there is no such control over people who drink at home.
A series of reports on alcohol consumption have been produced since the 1960s by the Commission on Liquor Licensing, the advisory council on health promotion and the national council on alcoholism. However, the problems appear to have increased in the past ten years. According to one recent report, 8,000 people presented with drinking problems in one year. Each of these individuals will affect ten people, which means that more than 80,000 people are directly or indirectly affected by problem drinking.
The price of alcohol in Ireland has decreased and it has become more accessible. It is important that we approach the issue in a constructive manner and the motion before the House is the appropriate way to deal with it. Below cost selling is certainly not helping. We must put in place more severe restrictions to ensure that if people want to buy alcohol, they will have to pay the price for it. There is also the issue of taxation and whether we should seriously consider tax on alcohol. If people are consuming a large amount of alcohol, the net cost is to the State in real terms. As my colleague said, the accident and emergency departments have to provide the after-care in many cases and that is a direct cost to the taxpayer.
It is time to change the existing regulations. Now is the appropriate time to review the matter and to move forward on it. I formally second the proposal put forward by my colleague.
I compliment the Fine Gael Party on tabling this motion. It is a comprehensive motion dealing with far more than the price of drink. It outlines the alcohol related health issues, crime levels and so forth. It is not just a matter of how alcohol affects the people who abuse it but how society in general is affected by it through anti-social behaviour, which we have seen so often, and alcohol related crimes, which are becoming far more prevalent. We need only consider the number of stabbings, killings and so forth that take place at house parties, and alcohol is very much a factor in those. It is timely, therefore, to examine this issue and how society has changed.
Senator Colm Burke correctly said that we have gone from a pub culture to where drink is brought to the private house, where there is no control mechanism. I am not talking about social drinking but the large amounts of alcohol being consumed by young people. I travelled through a village recently in the middle of the day and I was very surprised to see a group of young men loading a number of six packs into a supermarket trolley to bring them to their cars. They were obviously going to a party but it certainly did not appear to me to be social drinking.
It is important not to wait for a knee-jerk reaction. I recall the very sad case in Dublin in which a young man was killed outside a nightclub. Subsequently, there was legislation in response to that. However, on the day after that crime virtually every mainstream newspaper carried an editorial concerning the abuse of alcohol, using that incident as an example. I am not saying the killing would be normal or prevalent but there are many such cases. When I spoke in the Seanad in the days following that very sad tragedy I said it would be gone off the radar the following week, and it was. That is the reason this motion is so important — it is not a knee-jerk reaction to a particular incident, but a focus on what we, as legislators, should endeavour to do.
This motion would not have been brought forward seven to ten years ago. One of the reasons is that we tended to treat the abuse of alcohol in a jocose manner. It was the stock in trade of every comedian to talk about the drunk. What we were missing, was what was happening behind that scenario, such as the broken homes, the violence in homes, young people's lives destroyed and the homeless people who once had homes but were now winos out on the street. That was the real story, but we ignored it. Perhaps we culturally ignored it because of our traditions in that regard. This motion, therefore, would not have been brought forward ten years ago. I genuinely believe a sincere effort is now being made to do what is right, and in a balanced way.
None of us is preaching about alcohol. We are talking about the abuse of alcohol, which is a different matter. In that context, we are prepared to give consideration to the fact that alcohol is an industry as well as being a social instrument. We accept that. However, at times I would have expected a greater response from the industry, in the same way that legislators gave a response. When legislation was required on smoking, for example, which is a drug like alcohol, we were prepared to grasp the nettle. There was huge opposition to what was being done but everybody knew that secondary smoking was harmful to individuals. We owed the legislation to the rest of society. We passed that legislation and it is working. People responded by looking after the rights of smokers as well. There is no advertising of cigarettes. I recall being taught in drama classes how to use one's hands, because all actors and actresses had a problem with that. One was always given a cigarette. If people look back at the many soap operas and well known films, they will see all the actors smoking.
The same is happening now with drink. Watch "Fair City", "Coronation Street" or "Eastenders". Each one of them sets most of their scenes in a pub. I am not arguing against that but against the glorification of drink. A great effort was made with the supermarkets. There are ten or 11 supermarket chains that agreed a regulatory approach to the display and sale of drink. The report from that body has just been released for the Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter. There is an independent monitoring body to ensure that these businesses fulfil their commitments as to where they place the drinks and how much advertising they do. They can only spend 25% of their advertising on drink. I spoke to the chairman of this body today and I understand this approach is working.
We should now examine the advertising of drink. We could do without it. Drink will still be sold. We should try to separate it from victory in sport and so forth. I recall seeing some very young men filling a trophy with drink after a game. That is not necessary. They will get their drink but that is associating the role models with drink. We should seriously examine that issue. Crime is a serious issue associated with drink. As with drugs, abusing alcohol leads to irresponsible actions. There is a tribal aspect to large numbers of people drinking together and, unfortunately, decent good young people get caught up in that unwittingly, not seeing the dangers attached to it. For that reason we must consider education. We have looked at education in other areas, such as for safe driving. When there are car accidents we tend to lower speed limits and the limits on the amount of drink one can consume. Can we not see the same situation here? We should learn from what we did in those areas. We grasped the nettle and were prepared to take a stand. From the education point of view, we must extend it into the schools.
I was delighted recently to see so many young people setting up No Name clubs, where alcohol is not available. However, I recall a survey being conducted about four years ago in a particular part of Ireland which endeavoured to find out at what age young people started to drink. The vast majority had started at the age of 13 years, and they were drinking hard spirits. The alarm bells are ringing. Fine Gael has taken a step today and legislators are prepared to come together on this issue. I believe society in general will thank us, as will young people in the long term. I commend Fine Gael for this motion.
I welcome the Minister of State. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this issue because, until recently, I worked in services that dealt with alcohol addiction. I have seen at first hand what alcohol misuse can do. By the same token, many people enjoy a drink and when Members debate alcohol policy, they should not move to a position by which they take polar opposites of the extreme or are perceived as being fundamentalists in favour of one argument or another. Instead, they should add some balance to the issue. The problem with alcohol arises when it begins to have a negative effect on work, family relationships, health or the ability to live a happy life. That is when alcohol becomes problematic for people. I also note the economic cost of alcohol to the State with regard to lost hours in employment, the impact on the health and criminal justice services and the number of road deaths. There is hardly any area in which alcohol misuse is not felt. Most people will agree that as a society, Ireland has a rather unhealthy relationship with alcohol and it is more than simply an individual problem. Moreover, the reasons for this are profound and probably are not amenable to a single or simple solution. It is clear that if the reasons explaining this society's relationship with alcohol are complex, any policy response put forward must be equally complex and must be multi-stranded. Any proposed single solution is doomed to failure from the outset because it will fail to recognise the complexity of the issue.
As for some of the more startling effects, one can point to road deaths and that alcohol misuse is indicated in up to 40% of deaths by suicide. When discussing alcohol misuse, it also is important not to try to identify a particular cohort of the population as being the problem. There is a tendency to see young people as the problem in respect of anti-social behaviour and associated matters. However, having worked in this area for 25 years, my perception is that in our society, it is the more mature people, in terms of age, who present with the mostproblematic behaviour. It is insidious and under the radar and is not often seen but it must be identified.
In addition, I note the strength of the drinks industry in advertising and lobbying and acknowledge the extent to which alcohol is ingrained in our culture. Virtually all events that are celebrated and even some events that are not appear to revolve around alcohol. When Members hear arguments made by particular lobby groups, they should be somewhat suspicious when the proposed solutions put forward by such groups coincide with the best interests of those groups. It is important to point this out.
Whatever solution is proposed, Members will hardly solve the problem today in a two hour debate. I join Senator Ó Murchú in commending Fine Gael for tabling this motion. It is a good place to start, as one must start somewhere. While reports have been written on this issue repeatedly for 20, 40 and 100 years, we still appear to be calling for more reports. I commend the Minister of State on grasping a nettle and facing up to the problem and I ask that something be done about it. The problem must be confronted in all its complexity and Members must be brave in the face of those who stand to gain from maintaining thestatus quo. In addition, Members must act decisively and recognise the need for all dimensions of this debate to be confronted. As it is known that advertising affects drinking patterns, the means and location of alcohol advertising must be considered. It is a real problem and even to begin exploring that avenue would open a can of worms.
While I hope never again to be heard in agreement with the former Minister,Michael McDowell, he was right to suggest that Ireland needs to change its culture regarding alcohol.
Moreover, his idea of introducing café bars certainly is worth exploring. However, matters will not change overnight but in incremental steps over a long journey. The step proposed in this motion constitutes the first step in that journey. If one approaches the issue by suggesting that minimum pricing alone will solve the problem, it will not. However, it will solve it as part of a package of other measures that could be introduced. I refer to an interesting study carried out by the University of Sheffield on minimum pricing in Scotland. While the authors added the important proviso that the findings were specific to Scotland, the study found that minimum pricing is effective, but only when prices are substantially increased. Moreover, the more they are increased, the more effective it becomes. It also showed that drinkers sometimes switch from one drink to another to compensate for this. In addition, it showed that reductions occurred in all harm related areas. Rates of alcohol related crime and absenteeism fromwork have fallen, as has the rate of health related harm. Moreover, there is a corresponding saving in health care costs. It certainly looks like a promising area to explore and I would welcome it.
One minute remains to the Senator.
I could talk all day about this subject. There are obstacles in the path to the introduction of minimum pricing and I wonder whether it should be approached by way of taxation. If so, how would one differentiate between alcohol products, such as standard and premium beers for instance, and how would the taxation system capture that difference? If it is not intended to use taxation to implement this measure, would one be adding to the profits of the drinks industry? This might have the unintended consequence of providing that industry with greater resources for promotion and advertising, which brings one back to the circle of advertising and drink. While several issues arise, I did a considerable amount of work on this subject in another policy research area last year and on balance I am in favour but again only as part of a package of other measures.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach will forgive me for exceeding my time. A cultural change and shift is what is needed. I certainly will support the Minister of State in this regard and I welcome the position to which she has moved. While it has taken a long time to move to that position, we have been talking about it for too long and it is now time to do something about it. I congratulate the Minister of State and I look forward to working with her on this matter.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:
accepts that we need to enforce a minimum price for alcohol, based on the price per unit of alcohol;
notes that selling very cheap alcohol is an incentive to the purchase of alcohol;
notes that excessive consumption of alcohol is damaging for the health of individuals;
notes that the average age for a first drinking experience is declining;
recognises that very cheap alcohol can be damaging for individuals, families and communities; and
recognises that alcohol-related crimes have risen in the decade from 2001 to 2011.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and her stated commitments on this issue. I also thank the Fine Gael Members, in particular Senators Noone and Colm Burke, for tabling this Private Members' motion. It addresses the issue of alcohol related harm. This is not a pro or anti-alcohol discussion but pertains to alcohol related harm. It is estimated that the cost to the State in 2007 was approximately €3.7 billion which, if translated into the cost per taxpayer, is €3,318. Moreover, the profound societal ramifications of the harmful use of alcohol in Ireland makes it imperative this problem be tackled in a determined, concerted and swift fashion.
The motion as tabled correctly recognises that alcohol related crimes have risen in the past decade. This is supported by recent analysis from the Garda PULSE system, which recorded a 30% increase in alcohol related crimes between 2003 and 2007. It also showed the total number of offences among minors increased in the observed period by a staggering 54%. According to the same data, the 18 to 24 year group was responsible for two fifths of offences, while figures for those under 18 constitute 17% of offences, which is a matter of concern to me. As for the issue of harmful use of alcohol during pregnancy, it has a proven association with impaired foetal brain development, impaired intellectual development and cognitive and behavioural dysfunctions that can restrict educational attainment and stifle future development in life.
As previous Members have stated, the harmful use of alcohol can result in substantial economic costs or in the cost of labour market productivity. It has been suggested that absenteeism has cost Irish businesses €1.5 billion per year. A recent survey by IBEC found that alcohol was blamed by employers as the primary reason for 4% and 1% of short-term absences from work by their male and female employees, respectively. In respect of the health and health care cost implications, alcohol liver disease rates and deaths have almost trebled between 1995 and 2007. Among the 15 to 34 year age group, the rate of deaths from alcohol liver disease has increased by 247%. Seven out of ten men and four out of ten women who drink do so in a manner that is damaging to their health. Moreover, a total of 10% of general inpatient costs, 14% of psychiatric hospital costs, 7% of GP costs and up to 30% of emergency health care costs are alcohol related. Each night in Ireland, 2,000 hospital beds are occupied for alcohol related reasons.
I refer to the issue of children and the indirect impact of alcohol, as well as its direct impact. According to the recent report launched by the Minister of State, entitled Hidden Realities: Children's Exposure to Risk from Parental Drinking in Ireland, 587,000 children are regularly exposed to risk from parental hazardous drinking. The harmful use of alcohol in the home is associated with increased incidences of verbal and physical abuse, witness to violence, neglect, isolation and insecurity. The exposure of children to risk from parental alcohol problems is amplified by the significant burden children bear, such as a care role reversal and keeping secret the problem, which has a great cost to the child concerned in respect of school and developmental life.
I thank Fine Gael for incorporating the proposals that were put forward by Senator Crown and myself in our amendment, which I appreciate. I would like the programme to be added for the following reason. The latest HSE alcohol awareness campaign, for example, speaks of the weekly standard drinks allowance, which is 14 units for adult women and 21 for adult men, and advises that one standard drink is equivalent to 10 g of pure alcohol. As my understanding is that the standard drink measurement will be reconverted back to grams across the board, I propose this amendment to pre-empt this change.
With regard to below cost selling, I thank Fine Gael for adding the words "and very cheaply". This is a specific pricing strategy. It is important to note that "very cheap alcohol" is a term that is preferred by quite a number of organisations, such as Alcohol Action Ireland, Barnardos, Focus Ireland, No Name clubs, Rape Crisis Network Ireland, the Ballymun Local Drugs Task Force, the Irish Cancer Society, the Irish Heart Foundation, the Irish Medical Organisation, the ISPCC, the National Youth Council of Ireland and the North West Alcohol Forum. It is also supported by the Vintners Federation of Ireland. I welcome the amendment and the harmony we have reached.
The reason I had a difficulty with the term "below cost selling" is that there is no agreed definition of how to calculate and define cost pricing. It still allows alcohol to be sold very cheaply, given that the unit cost can be varied by the retailer depending on a number of factors. It is not clear that, if a below cost selling plan was put in place, it would be sufficient to reduce alcohol consumption and, therefore, would not necessarily have the desired impact. There are also difficulties in monitoring, compliance and securing convictions for below cost selling. In fact, if one looks back, this was one of the key reasons behind the repeal of the groceries order in 2006. The price is not linked to the strength of the drink as it does not relate to the number of units or grammes of alcohol the drink contains. I appreciate the addition of the words "and very cheaply", which will address my concerns and will achieve what I believe is everybody's intention in this motion.
What has been said by all speakers is important. This is not just one measurement which looks at pricing. We need to look at culture as well as the enforcement of our current laws. There are many laws in place that can be enforced in regard to drink driving and many other issues. We must look at advertising and marketing, including social marketing. I was shocked to see that when my nephews are on YouTube and Facebook, they get very different advertisements to the ones I get. Twelve year olds are regularly seeing drinks advertising on their screens whereas I do not get these on my screen, which tells us something about who these products are being marketed at. It is also about protecting children who are indirectly impacted by alcohol. As noted in the motion, pricing is an issue in this regard.
In the cause of harmony in the House, I thank Members for working together. This is good for the Seanad. It should be a first step in addressing the harmful effects of alcohol and the price it has for us in Ireland.
Before Senator van Turnhout resumes her seat, I am advised there are some technical amendments to be made to her amendment. One is in lines two and three, after the words "per unit" to insert the words "per gram". Will the Senator formally propose that amendment?
I so propose. I formally propose after the words "notes that" in the second point——
We were going to propose this amendment at the end, if that is all right. It is our motion. We are accepting——
As the amendment is in the name of Senator van Turnhout, she has to do it.
No, we are accepting——
It is being incorporated into the motion.
Will Senator van Turnhout propose the second amendment in regard to cost price?
I propose that after the words "selling alcohol for below cost price" in the motion we insert the words "and very cheaply" and incorporate the changes in the amendment.
The amendment is to insert the words "and very cheaply" after the words "below cost price".
Thank you. I call Senator Crown. I remind the House that these amendments must be seconded.
I second the amendments.
An interesting exercise occurred last week. We were in a session of the Joint Committee on Health and Children with representatives of the alcohol industry and also representatives of Alcohol Action Ireland who were concerned about the toll alcohol takes of our society. An illustrative point was to ask what would their attitude be to the notion that Ireland would be a better country if everybody stopped drinking completely tomorrow and gave up alcohol entirely. I am quite certain that if alcohol were discovered for the first time tomorrow, it would not be allowed and would be banned, purely on grounds of carcinogenicity.
Another fact we must bear in mind is where we are in terms of alcohol consumption in Ireland by international standards. The situation is quite extraordinary. As someone who worked in the health services of other countries outside Ireland for many years and took a good deal of good-natured ribbing about the Irish reputation for alcoholic excess, I used to be always able to defend us by saying "But you do know that here in the United Kingdom you have more alcoholic liver disease than we have" and "Here in the US you have a greater consumption of alcohol than we have. We are not actually that bad". That is the way it was, as we were fairly low down the league tables for alcohol consumption by international standards.
The strange and rather sad point is that as soon as we got a few bob during the years of our economic advance, it appears we spent quite a bit of it on alcohol, because we suddenly rocketed towards the top of charts on which we used to occupy mid-table positions. For example, France would have had approximately 20 litres of alcohol consumption per head of population for some 30 years, which has since reduced to approximately 14 litres. Over roughly the same period, our consumption has between doubled and tripled, so that we are roughly neck and neck with France and, depending on some statistics, we may be ahead of it. It is clear there is, in absolute terms, a dramatic change in alcohol consumption in this country. Much of what we have regarded as being the health consequences of alcohol excess we have not yet seen because it will take quite a few years for them to reach fruition, based on the newer consumption figures which occurred during the 1990s.
Hypothetically, what would happen if everybody in Ireland decided collectively to take the pledge tomorrow — if we all gave up alcohol in its entirety? The first thing that would happen is that we would have fewer road traffic accidents, fewer injuries and fewer deaths — I do not think anybody would dispute that. We would have fewer assaults, less domestic violence and fewer rapes. The murder rate would go down. There would be a dramatic decrease in the demand for accident and emergency services, with the spin-off benefit of a dramatic decrease in waiting list times for other elective aspects of our health system, which are currently bunged up by people coming in with alcohol-related emergencies. I can speak with authority when I say there would be a decrease in the incidence of cancers of the head and neck, of the oesophagus and of the pancreas. We have recently discovered there is a link between alcohol and breast cancer, so if everybody stopped drinking, the level of breast cancer would reduce, perhaps by as much as one third.
We must also factor in the opportunity costs, in that all the money we spend on alcohol at a time when we do not have much money could be spent on other things. This affects every family that is spending money on alcohol when there are recessionary pressures. While I believe most families are extremely responsible to the pin of their collars in using their money as responsibly as they can for the benefit of their children, the reality is there would be more money available for family finance, food, clothing and education. There is a substantial opportunity time cost of alcohol consumption. Parents would have more time for good parenting and likely would do it better. There are substantial economic arguments, some of which we have heard in terms of the implications for employment.
There really is not any good argument for us to continue drinking, but we will do it, because it is deeply ingrained in our culture and our own personal psychology, so, I guess, we must all define the parameters of our own relationship with alcohol, if we consume it. However, we can as a society do our level best to ameliorate its worst effects and to discourage and disincentivise alcohol consumption among younger people.
A similar point arose many years ago with regard to tobacco. All of the arguments which are advanced in favour of alcohol are spurious, except for the argument that we do it because it is fun and gives us pleasure — that is the only one that is valid, which people must honestly admit. All of the arguments that it facilitates socialisation or that the mild relaxation effects might help to disinhibit people who might otherwise not have the opportunity to engage others in conversation are all spurious arguments. It is addiction thinking, which is very reminiscent of the same arguments that were advanced in favour of tobacco, such as "Sure, won't the few cigarettes relax me" and "I would get a heart attack if I did not have them". We now know that is total nonsense. All of the social benefits which occur with alcohol would be available in different social fora without alcohol.
What we should be aiming for as a society is less alcohol consumption. Clearly, we need to do a whole array of things which will decrease the amount of alcohol we collectively drink. At the committee last week we interacted with members of two representative organisations, the Vintners Federation of Ireland and the Alcoholic Beverage Federation of Ireland. There have been few occasions in my life when in the course of a one or two hour meeting, my attitudes hardened more. I went in thinking I was in favour of a gentle ban on broadcast advertisements for alcohol and nothing else but I came out thinking these people were the enemy. We have to tackle them and we have to refute all the arguments they advance. Collectively, it is our responsibility as representatives of our society to do all we can to ensure people drink less and drink responsibly. The arguments they advanced were that we can drink just as much as we do, if not more, and as long as we do so responsibly, we can ameliorate the social effects. That is not true. We need to drink less and to set ourselves against the wind with an ambitious agenda to ban all alcohol advertising. We cannot allow companies to profit from encouraging people to do something that is bad for them.
The pricing issues, correctly raised in our amendment by Senator van Turnhout, must be addressed. I am delighted we have had a high measure of co-operation with the amendment. We also need, as many colleagues have pointed out, to look into our own souls, examine our own attitudes to this drug and try to do what we can to set a major decline in alcohol consumption over the next five to ten years as an ambitious national goal. I thank everyone for the cross-party support for the motion. This is a critically important health issue we all need to deal with.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. She is committed to dealing with this issue. She attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health and Children several weeks ago on this issue and I was impressed by her presentation.
Six years ago, the breakdown of alcohol consumption in Ireland comprised 70% in pubs on-trade 30% off-trade in supermarkets and off-licences while today the breakdown is 45% on-trade and 55% off-trade. There are many reasons for this, including lifestyle changes, legislation directed particularly at the on-trade rather than the off-trade and general economic circumstances. The single biggest factor has been the abolition of the groceries order, which has allowed supermarkets in particular to sell alcohol at the prices they do.
The reason we have irresponsible drinking is price and availability. Children as young as 11 are drinking. I feel strongly about having an effective education programme in all our national schools to make children aware of the dangers of alcohol. The North West Alcohol Forum Limited, a non-governmental organisation, does excellent work in this regard. It was established to work in partnership with all sectors, including health, justice, community and education, to reduce hazardous drinking and its consequences among individuals, families and communities. Steetwise for Life is the forum's national school programme. Representatives go into sixth class and they also run another programme for first years in secondary school. This has been rolled out only in County Donegal and the forum is trying to have the programmes rolled out in counties Sligo and Leitrim. The Government needs to consider a national programme for primary schools to educate children about the dangers of alcohol, and I hope we will do this.
Minimum pricing needs to be introduced and the Government also needs to implement section 9 of the 2008 Act which states that alcohol should be sold in a separate area with a separate entrance that is manned by a mature person. The ministerial order for this was never signed. It is important we try to ban price-based advertising and prohibit volume related promotions. We should also consider the concept of a green tax on non-returnable bottles and cans. While this would not guarantee a floor price, it would make it more difficult for the supermarkets to reduce their prices to the crazy levels we are witnessing. The concept of the green tax would work on non-returnable bottles and cans and would operate similar to the plastic bag levy. Research has highlighted that almost €120 million could be generated annually by applying a 10 cent levy to cans and a 20 cent levy to bottles. This is worthy of consideration in the context of the current debate that centres around the low price of alcohol in supermarkets.
As Senator Gilroy stated, the Scottish Parliament recently published a Bill to introduce minimum pricing and similar legislation is also being considered in Northern Ireland. As a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, I had talks with several of my Scottish colleagues about their plans in this regard. I will keep in touch with them regarding their progress with that Bill.
Minimum pricing will not penalise moderate drinkers, as it would have a marginal effect on them, but it would have a significant impact on consumers, especially young people, who have a problem with alcohol consumption. The drinking habits of young people are price sensitive and alcohol is being sold at below cost in supermarkets.
I am involved in the pub trade and I was nominated to the House by the Vintners Federation of Ireland. I was surprised last week that one of my colleagues declared in the House that he thought that it was inappropriate to have a representative in this House nominated by vintners. The same Senator during his recent presidential campaign went to great lengths to emphasise how he has spent his political career representing the marginalised and his campaign rhetoric was big on the need for inclusion and for everyone having his or her voice heard. He seems to have changed his mind on that. I am a democrat and I believe in everyone having his or her voice heard regardless of whether he or she agrees with what I have to say. The majority of publicans are responsible and we support minimum pricing.
While people may say we have a vested interest, I remind Senator Crown there is a social aspect to this debate. Perhaps people living in the greater Dublin area might not be aware of this as much as those of us living in rural Ireland but many older people in rural communities were used to going to their pub for one or two pints at most. That was their routine. They got to meet people in their communities and everyone knew that they were okay. If they were not seen for a day or two, somebody would check on them.
Senator Gilroy referred to café bars but we might have missed the boat in this regard because the good times are gone. We cannot get people into pubs and, therefore, we are unlikely to get them into café bars. This is a good motion. Alcohol abuse is a major issue, particularly among young people, and I have faith in the Minister of State to move on this issue.
I also welcome the Minister of State to the House and compliment her on the initiatives she has taken on substance abuse in general. I wish her well.
I am grateful to Senator van Turnhout for the amendment, which has been accepted by the Government, because it is significant. I am also grateful to her for quoting many of the relevant statistics, which prevents me from having to repeat them. This happens all the time and the fact that they are on the record is more important than who puts them there. I presume most of the statistics come from Alcohol Action Ireland's pre-budget submission. This is the national charity for alcohol related issues. I am sure the Minister of State is familiar with the submission and that she will go into it in detail with her officials because it goes some way to signalling the direction in which the motion is attempting to go.
I was struck by one statistic in the context of the current price of alcohol. A woman can reach her low risk weekly drinking limit for only €6.30 while a man can reach his for less than €10, which is the equivalent of approximately one hour's work on the minimum wage. Previous speakers have referred to alcohol induced social crime. For example, 85% of Garda youth diversion projects put alcohol related crime first on the list of offences committed in their area and they state that affordability and accessibility are two of the key factors fuelling alcohol related youth crime.
I always will defer to Senator Crown on health related issues. I agree with him that if alcohol were discovered now, it would be banned. However, I could not help but reflect on the Volstead Act which attempted to ban alcohol in the US in 1919. Currently, the series, "Boardwalk Empire", is running on Sky Atlantic and it has a strong Irish dimension.
One might welcome that from a major television programme but then one realises it is just as much to do with alcohol, its abuse, the sale of illegal liquor and the consequences of the Volstead Act that brought in prohibition, which led to organised crime. In a perfect world it would be great to have and I support the reasoning behind Senator Crown's comment and the evidence he used to back it up, but we are faced with a situation where this country, more than perhaps any other European country with the possible exception of Britain, has a reputation for binge drinking. Unlike our European colleagues, we do not just drink, we drink until we are absolutely ossified. There is a culture that has grown up among younger people that it is not enough to go out and enjoy oneself and have a few drinks, one must get absolutely out of it, which seems to be part of the rite of passage now. Sadly, in my own family, I have 18, 19 and 21 year old children and they are drinking. My wife is not into drink apart from the odd glass of wine and I never drank.
In the pre-budget submission, the World Health Organization quoted from a statement it made in 2009 that there is indisputable evidence that the price of alcohol matters. If the price of alcohol goes up, alcohol related harm goes down. The same applies to cigarette consumption. In Britain the Government promised prior to the election to tackle concerns about the rise of violence among drunk teenagers and while in opposition, the Conservative Party promised to call time on drinks that fuel anti-social behaviour. Sadly, the most recent initiative has not gone down well and the British Government seems to have taken its foot off the pedal. A number of spokesmen said the partial restrictions on low cost selling show the Government accepts cheap drink is the main driver of health damage and these restrictions will ease it in the right direction to make a practical difference. Don Shenker from the Alcohol Concern campaign said, however, that the measure would not go far in resolving binge drinking and that the Government must look again at a minimum price per unit of alcohol. That is the only evidence-based approach that will end cheap discounts once and for all. In that context, there is a revealing statistic from 2009 in Britain, and I assume the same is true here, that revealed the main supermarkets were selling beer cheaper than mineral water, at 5p per 100 ml, triggering claims that such rock bottom prices fuel binge drinking.
I agree with the sentiment on all sides that we must address the culture that exists. This is not simply about putting initiatives in place, it is about a culture and we must have an holistic approach. It is a slow burner, it will not happen overnight and I presume that is part of the Minister of State's mandate — to induce a change in that culture. In that context I compliment the Gaelic Athletic Association, which in recent weeks has initiated an alcohol and drug abuse programme and has appointed a national officer, Mr. Colin Regan, a former intercounty player from my county. He will work out of Croke Park but the organisation is also appointing similar officers at county board level throughout the country.
It is interesting that while the GAA has been criticised about Guinness sponsoring the national hurling championship, there is much more tolerance for Heineken supporting rugby competitions. The word is nearly embedded in our culture, with the Heineken Cup serving to associate the sport with drink. The advertising is highly creative but it feeds into a conditioning process that somehow associates playing rugby, playing a manly sport, and I use that term in a genderless context because women play rugby as well, with drinking Heineken.
I agree totally with an outright ban on advertising. I thought it was happening but it seems the drinks industry has managed somehow to secure a compromise and that such advertising will continue. I thought thresholds and restrictions would be put in place. I agree with Senator Crown that all alcohol advertising should all be banned, the price of alcohol should put up sky high and, on the basis of evidence, we might then make a start in tackling the abuse of this drug.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. One of the disadvantages of being far down the speakers list is that most people have cited the statistic I intended to cite.
I notice Senator Crown mentioned all the organs of the body with the exception of the liver and I was surprised he left it out given that it is probably one of the organs that suffers most from excess alcohol consumption. I also support Senator Imelda Henry in her remarks. We are well past the day when we all play cards around the fire while sipping cups of tea, and will not be going back to John Huston's "The Dead", where we would stand around the upright piano or reciting improving poetry or singing songs. Those days are gone and the reality is that Ireland historically has had a pub culture. One of the sad things is that in the recent two decades we have moved away from the positive aspects of that pub culture to the negative aspects of cynical below cost selling on the part of some supermarket outlets.
Much of this, however, is not due to the activities of supermarkets but of successive Governments milking the cash cow of excess duty on alcohol in pubs. This is not such a narrow issue. It is much broader and goes right to the fundamentals of Irish society. I note that young people in Ireland take a much more positive attitude to the prohibition of drinking and driving so I would not like the impression to go out that young people are sitting around under the hedges throwing back bottles of vodka and naggins of Jack Daniels. Education is an issue, not just of younger people but also of people of my generation and older who saw it as perfectly fit in the 1960s and 1970s to get into cars without thinking twice about driving down the road absolutely trolleyed.
Some of the research mentioned points to the complete change in our culture. As recently as 2003, 70% of drinking was done in pubs and clubs. That figure has fallen dramatically and while I am completely in favour of the motion, we must be clearer in our thinking about how we address the impact of what has happened in recent years. Aside from the fact that we know excess consumption of alcohol leads to significant health difficulties, it is a fact that excessive consumption of alcohol is related to depression. At present we are living through the worst period the country has seen since the 1950s, and I include the 1980s in that. I argue for a rebalancing. I am totally in favour of the motion but we must look at what we are doing. The term "social inclusion" is thrown around but the pubs of Ireland in the past were places where people could socialise and get involved in community activities. They were positive contributing factors in society. This is not just an issue in rural areas; there are vast tracts of urban areas where the residents might as well be living on the outskirts of rural areas for all the potential that exists to socialise and interact. We need to make it more affordable for people to socialise in rural pubs. There is also a need to consider the issues or rural and urban transport. We must take what was good about the past and what is negative with regard to the present and carry out a rebalancing exercise.
Is mór agam deis a fháil labhairt ar an díospóireacht seo. Mar duine a d'oibrigh le daoine a bhíonn deacrachtaí acu le cúrsaí alcóil, sílim gur rún iontach tábhachtach é an rún seo. Cuireann Sinn Féin fáilte roimh na moltaí atá sa rún atá romhainn anocht. In general, Sinn Féin supports the motion. I have a particular interest in this area and I worked with a number of professionals in the west of Ireland in respect of it. I am, therefore, very much aware of the problems to which alcohol can give rise.
Not for the first time today, I must admit that I am obliged to agree with a great deal of what Senator Hayden said. This is an extremely broad-ranging issue and, as a result, is very difficult to discuss alcohol-related matters separately from each other. Alcohol abuse does not merely come down to the fact that people can go to their local supermarket and purchase cheap drink. Such abuse relates to societal factors, to the backgrounds of those who engage in it, to the fact that some people are medically predisposed to drink alcohol and to difficulties in respect of financial or other personal matters. We must engage in a broader debate on this matter.
I spoke to a professional involved in this area in Galway and was informed that one of the biggest problems in that part of the country did not just relate to cheap alcohol but also to the mixing of such alcohol with certain caffeine-containing drinks. The latter caused people to have blackouts and complete lapses of memory. There is a need, therefore, to examine this issue in a much more wide-ranging fashion and everyone is aware that the debate in which we are engaged is extremely important.
I do not wish to regurgitate some of the statistics that have already been put forward in respect of the harm which alcohol can cause. It is not just the people who are involved in drinking who are affected; their immediate families, relatives, friends, work colleagues, etc., can also be affected. Monday morning syndrome gives rise to huge rates of absenteeism in the workplace and also to major sorrow and anger on the part of those who are affected by it. According to the North-West Alcohol Forum, one in every three child abuse cases involves alcohol. That is a startling and terrifying statistic. In addition, one is seven child welfare cases are alcohol related. As a result of dealing with people in the areas in which they reside, I am sure other Senators can attest to the fact these statistics reflect reality.
Alcohol is also a factor in many violent crimes and road accidents. This is all linked to the fact that alcohol is being sold at extremely low prices and, in some instances, below cost. Some 271,000 children under the age of 15 are exposed to risk as a result of parental drinking. A total of 1.37 million adults, including 72.9% of 18 to 24 year olds, engage in hazardous drinking on a regular basis. The numbers of those under 18 years of age who engage in such drinking is also likely to be quite high. In such circumstances, I agree with Senator Mooney that this issue is extremely broad in nature and that we must deal with it in a wide-ranging way. As someone who lives in a rural area, I am very aware of the latter.
One of the caveats I have in respect of the motion is that it is very easy to focus on the selling of cheap alcohol. There are certain people who are quite strapped for cash at present and who do not have the option of travelling to the nearest city, town or whatever in order to socialise. As previous speakers indicated, there is no late-night transport system for such individuals. We must ensure that any measures relating to the pricing of alcohol do not affect those on low incomes. The fact that someone earns less money is no reason to deny him or her the possibility of being able to socialise or purchase — as is his or her right — an alcoholic beverage in the local shop and enjoy drinking it at home because he or she does not have the option of going to a pub or a nightclub. There is a need to ensure that the Government provides proper funding in respect of the rural transport programme and other public transport systems in order that people will have the option to socialise at night.
In its 2010 strategy on reducing the harmful use of alcohol, the World Health Organization, WHO, calls for special attention to be paid to reducing harm to people other than drinkers and to populations, including children, that are at particular risk. Sinn Féin is in wholehearted agreement with this and has consistently attempted to ensure that the sale of alcohol, North and South, should be properly regulated and secure. We have continually argued against below-cost selling and made strenuous efforts and attempts to both highlight and stop it. We have also been extremely active in campaigning against the cash-on-delivery sale of alcohol. Sinn Féin is of the view that addressing the impact of alcohol on public health must be the major imperative and determining factor influencing the Department of Health and other Departments. Like the broader community, we recognise that alcohol is not merely another tradeable commodity.
Worldwide medical evidence demonstrates that alcohol, unlike benign or healthful products, is a drug that, when misused, is second only to tobacco use as a preventable cause of death and hospitalisation. The direct and indirect costs of alcohol misuse are well documented and while there is a clear onus on individuals to ensure they use alcohol wisely, there is also a very clear responsibility to have controls in place and adequate preventive measures to warn people — particularly the young — of the long-term effects of binge or heavy drinking. There has been a marked change in the patterns of drinking among young people in particular during the past ten years and statistics show that increasing numbers of them are misusing alcohol. Children as young as 11 have already begun drinking and Ireland has one of the highest levels of binge drinking among 15 to 16 year olds in Europe.
Alcohol misuse can lead to a number of problems for the individuals concerned, their families and the community in general. Young people are more vulnerable to suffering physical, emotional and social harm from drinking alcohol and it can lead to their having mental health problems or becoming involved in antisocial activity. In some instances, it can lead to their committing more serious crimes. Alcohol Action Ireland has raised a number of points, with which I concur, regarding the need to deal with pricing in order that we might tackle the issue of consumption. This issue was also raised in the WHO framework strategy, which sets out a number of objectives for the reduction of harmful use of alcohol, in particular reducing its use among the young. This follows on from previous European alcohol action plans which made similar points.
Successive action plans have recommended particular actions in order to achieve the outcomes to which I refer. These include: developing a taxation policy which will ensure a high real price of alcohol, taxation based on alcohol volume — that is, higher taxes on alcoholic beverages with a higher alcohol content — and the provision of non-alcoholic beverages at low prices; using alcohol taxes to fund alcohol control activities, including health education, research into alcohol policy, and support to health services at both local and national levels; and controlling the availability of alcohol by restricting, or at least keeping in check, the number of outlets where alcohol is sold under licensing laws, limiting the number of licences and restricting hours of sale. It would be great if the Minister of State could indicate the extent to which we have succeeded in complying with the WHO's strategy framework and make a statement in respect of the recommendations to which I refer.
Alcohol can often be purchased at a price which is lower than that charged for bottled water. This is very worrying and requires serious consideration. What sort of message does it send out that for the same price as it would cost to attend a football match, a person can purchase 16 or 18 cans of beer or several litres of cider? As someone who has experience of close friends and neighbours being affected by severe alcoholism, I am conscious of the fact that much of what we are discussing is extremely subjective in nature. It is difficult to pinpoint who will or will not become an alcoholic. As a result, it is important that the State should put in place every support possible in order that we might assist those who get into trouble with alcohol. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the number of centres at which people can "dry out" is far too small. The supports available through the alcohol and drug addition services are simply not adequate in the context of dealing with the demand, particularly that which exists among young people. We do not really have any centres which are dedicated to dealing with young people who have problems with alcohol. There may be one or two such centres but as far as I am aware there are only ten or 20 places available at these facilities.
Tá sé iontach tábhachtach go rachaimid i ngleic leis an gceist seo. Tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuil an rún seo os ár gcomhair inniu. Caithfimid dul i ngleic leis na deacrachtaí i measc an phobail freisin. There have been cutbacks in the local development social inclusion programme. In rural and disadvantaged areas, it is extremely important that young people in particular are encouraged to remain active. They must be given something to do and funding must be provided in respect of sports clubs, community activities, etc. If these individuals are not involved in either gainful employment or a particular activity, they can tend to band together into groups and become involved in drinking. It is important that in the upcoming budget the Government should put forward measures which will assist young people — specifically those in disadvantaged communities — to remain in education, create employment for them and provide single parents and others with access to the labour market.
Tá an t-am caite.
Táim an-bhuíoch don Aire Stáit faoi teacht isteach inniu. Sílim go bhfuil an cheist seo fíor thábhachtach agus ba mhaith liom tacaíocht Sinn Féin don rún a lua.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I warmly welcome the tabling of the motion which has received cross-party support. I thank all of the contributors to the debate so far. I have noted all of the points made and can assure Senators that in terms of the ongoing work we are doing, they will be taken into consideration.
I am glad to have the opportunity to outline the position of the Government on the availability and misuse of alcohol. The debate is timely because there is widespread concern about the misuse of alcohol. We have reached the point where everybody recognises that it is a serious national problem and that it is time we did something effective and comprehensive about it. I am heartened by the number of conferences held in recent times and the manner in which they have contributed to a public debate on the issue. People realise we cannot continue as we are, that alcohol is doing serious damage to society — to individuals, families and communities. There is a strong view among the public that it is time to stop and take a more mature and sensible approach to alcohol and face up to what become a national problem.
We have been dealing with a significant increase in the number of outlets selling alcohol. A relaxation of the licensing law resulted in alcohol being available on every street corner, in every filling station, supermarket and convenience store. The widespread availability of alcohol is a key factor in terms of its abuse. We need to deal with this proliferation of outlets because if we do not and we ignore the body of evidence that suggests this is a key factor in the abuse of alcohol, we will merely be putting our heads in the sand.
Irish adults drink in a more dangerous way than adults in any other country, a fact that requires further consideration. A number of Senators have spoken about our psychological difficulties with alcohol, on which I would like to see research done. Whether it is alcohol abuse, drug abuse or the abuse of prescription drugs, we seem to be top of the league. While such elements as availability and price are a factor, there are underlying reasons for this which I would like to see researched. I do not know whether it is that we have an inferiority complex, whether it is something about the Irish psyche or our history, but for some reason we do not seem to be able to handle alcohol as well as people in similar countries.
Irish adults drank almost 12 litres of pure alcoholper capita last year — a volume that would be elevated further if one took into consideration that approximately 20% of the population do not drink alcohol. The average per alcohol drinker is even higher. Ultimately, 1.5 million Irish drinkers drink in a harmful way. That is an extraordinary statistic, given that the population is approximately 4.5 million. Data from relevant surveys indicate that the average age of first alcohol use among children has decreased considerably. This is a worrying trend for society, particularly parents.
As I commented during the week at another event, parents need to consider why their children are drinking so much. One of the items we need to address is that we, as parents, may not be giving our children the best example. We are too used to having alcohol at the centre of our lives; it is part of every occasion and family celebration. As adults, we need to consider this, not alone in terms of the damage we are doing to our own health but also in terms of the example we are giving to young people.
There is also a phenomenon whereby many adults facilitate young people in drinking. There are concerns about young people drinking on the local green or in the park. Because of that concern, parents sometimes facilitate the abuse of alcohol by their children in their homes. In addition, there is also ambivalence about parents being worried in case their children get involved in drugs and saying, "At least, it is not drugs; it is only alcohol." That is a misguided attitude to take.
All of these issues need to be addressed and we all are guilty of failing in that regard. It is time for us all to consider these issues.
The point has been made by a number of speakers that this is a problem for all us within Irish society. It is easy to think it is a problem which affects the marginalised, for example, certain minority communities. It is not. It is one for all of us in Irish society and one we need to address on the basis of a whole-of-population approach. We need to look at how we can break the cultural link between us as Irish people and alcohol.
One must bear in mind that alcohol is no ordinary commodity. For that reason, it is important when it is being sold in outlets that it be displayed in a way that recognises the potential dangers involved. I am really concerned that, increasingly, there is an in-your-face display of alcohol when one goes into a corner shop, filling station or supermarket. It is often difficult to avoid the high stacks of alcohol just inside the door. We cannot regard it in the same way as bread, milk or butter. It is a potentially dangerous commodity. For that reason, I would like to see a much greater level of separation between alcohol and other products in retail outlets.
Cost is a key factor in the abuse of alcohol. The cost here is high, certainly in pubs. People often ask, since its cost is higher than in many other countries, how come other European countdries do not have a problem to the same extent. We have a cultural problem with alcohol. Bearing this in mind, where cheap alcohol is available, particularly if the price declines constantly, this poses real problems for us in terms of an increasing volume of consumption across the population. This is particularly true in the case of vulnerable groups, including young people.
The question of a minimum price of alcohol is an important one. Personally, I am committed to acting on this issue. I am still awaiting legal advice and there is an indication that there might be legal hurdles to get over. However, I am heartened by developments in Scotland which is leading the way in this regard. In the past two weeks legislation has been published there. I have looked at some of the legal advice received and hope it will help us in approaching this issue. I am also conscious of the need for us to work closely with the authorities in Northern Ireland. To this end, I hope to meet the Minister, Mr. Poots, MLA, in the next couple of months. We must all row in behind the issue of a minimum price as one of the important planks in addressing the misuse of alcohol.
It is not my intention or that of the Government to penalise those who drink alcohol in moderation or who enjoy a bottle of wine at the weekend or a few cans of beer while watching a match. Nobody is out to stop such enjoyment, as all of us enjoy alcohol. There is nothing wrong with this where it is enjoyed in moderation. Alcohol has its place with a nice meal. However, the reality is that for too many in this country the volumes being consumed are at hazardous levels. It is doing much damage, in particular to young people, and we need to address this.
The point was made that we do not want to target people on low incomes. The reality is that we all pay a very high price for alcohol abuse in this country. A figure of €3.7 billion was mentioned by a number of speakers. This is the economic cost of alcohol abuse and everybody pays this through their taxes and additional charges. We are not getting any great bargains with regard to alcohol. We all pay a very high economic price for it.
It is also important to point out that in the price war going on at present, the big supermarkets in particular use alcohol as a loss leader. Recently, a supermarket was selling two bottles of red wine for €5 where this €5 does not even cover the cost of the excise duty or VAT, so the supermarket was taking a hit. This is the scenario with which we are faced. Alcohol is being used as a loss leader to attract people into shops. This means the big multiples must recoup this loss elsewhere which results in higher prices for groceries and other products in the supermarket. Therefore, it is no bargain and it is a false economy to think people are getting a bargain when they buy alcohol. This is the thinking behind moving on a minimum price. The point was also made that it is very difficult to detect what is below cost selling because of the level of discounting that takes place in the big multiples. This is why we must think in terms of the minimum price per gram of alcohol in addition to excise duty and VAT. This is the approach I would very much like to take and it is the right way to go.
It is very important that we are clear about alcohol misuse in this country and what it does. Alcohol is responsible for almost 100 deaths per month, and one in four deaths in young men were estimated to be due to alcohol. Compare this with one in 12 deaths due to cancer or one in 25 due to cardiovascular disease. We are at a point where it is not acceptable that young people should die of cancer. We do not accept this and yet far greater numbers of young people die as a result of alcohol abuse than from many of the other main diseases.
Alcohol is a contributory factor in half of all suicides and in deliberate self-harm. It also increases the risk of more than 60 medical conditions including several cancers. It is associated with 2,000 beds being occupied every night in Irish acute hospitals. It is responsible for one quarter of injuries presenting to accident and emergency departments and more than half of attendances in 2008 to specialised addiction treatment centres. It is associated with a range of disorders known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders because of mothers drinking during pregnancy. It is a factor in many unplanned pregnancies.
Alcohol increases the risk of children needing special care, with the World Health Organization estimating that adult alcohol problems are associated with 16% of child abuse cases. Alcohol was a trigger in one third of domestic abuse cases. It is related to illness and costs the health service €1.2 billion, and the cost of alcohol-related crime is estimated to be approximately €1.2 billion. The cost of lost economic output due to alcohol was estimated to be almost €500 million in 2007. In addition, alcohol-related road accidents also cost approximately €500 million.
I was interested to see a conference was held last week on the impact of alcohol in the business community. I hope we can move towards a situation where there will be much greater leadership in this regard from the business community. We should not accept this is part of who we are and that a business must factor into costs a certain level of absenteeism or, to use the other term used at the conference last week, "presenteeism", which is where workers are present at work but they are not conscious of what is going on or up to the job because of their alcohol abuse.
All of them.
The past 12 years.
All of these mean substantial additional costs for business. Alcohol greatly reduces productivity and for this reason also we must tackle it.
In 2009 the then Government established a steering group to examine this problem because it is long recognised that there is a problem and in recent times there has been a desire to address this. A steering group was established which was chaired by the chief medical officer at the Department of Health and Children. It comprises representatives of all of the relevant Departments and agencies and various interests including the alcohol industry. I am not sure I would have included the industry in the steering group if I had established it myself but this is what we have to work with. I was anxious that the steering group would complete its work because it was three quarters of the way through when the issue landed on my desk. The group has been considering all aspects of our alcohol problem and it is putting the finishing touches to its report. I will take this report and consider it, and it will form the basis of a comprehensive action plan to be drawn up by the Government to once and for all address our national problem with alcohol.
The point has been made that minimum pricing on its own is not the solution and I do not suggest for one moment that it is a panacea. It is an important element in the armoury for tackling the problem but we need to address the problem on many other fronts also. I hope we will have an action plan at an early stage in the new year and that we can move forward in producing the legislation and discussing it in this House and the Dáil.
I am very much heartened by the cross-party support for taking serious action in this area. People very much accept that we cannot delay any longer and that we need to tackle it and change our attitudes and behaviour towards alcohol. Several weeks ago, I made a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children and I know it has engaged in a series of meetings in this area. I am convinced that every party and all independents are keen to move on this. I hope to bring the report of the steering group to the joint committee so we can consider it, have additional input or recommendations, or add to the recommendations already made. I hope we will be able to move forward early next year on a cross-party basis recognising the difficulties that alcohol causes and the huge damage it does on a personal and community level in the country and that we can come up with a comprehensive package.
In addition to the cross-party political response, I hope other leaders in society will also get involved. I am thinking in terms of employers' groups, unions, churches and sporting bodies. With regard to sporting bodies, the issue of the close correlation between sporting activity and alcohol abuse was raised. Sporting activity is great and we all love watching it and many people participate but there is an issue in this regard. We also need parents' bodies to be involved. As a society we need to address it in this comprehensive way. I believe the time is right. The motion is very timely and if we do as I expect we will shortly and have cross-party support and a unanimous vote in favour of the motion it will send out a very clear signal. It is a very important step for the Seanad to take, to show we are serious about tackling this problem and that we will do so.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the contributions of other Senators. I have some concerns about the motion. I was particularly interested in what Senator Gilroy stated. This is an area where lobby groups have an inordinate influence and nothing that I say has anything to do with lobby groups. I believe lobby groups should be compulsorily registered with the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle. I am concerned about the way the debate has proceeded. We did not receive any numbers from the drinks industry. We received information from the OECD yesterday which states that in 2001 alcohol consumption in Ireland was 14.4 units and in 2009 it had reduced to 11.3 units. It is, therefore, 27% lower than it was, which corresponds to my experience. Credit is due to the former Ministers Noel Dempsey and Martin Cullen, as well as the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, for the reduced number of road deaths. There used to be over 600 annually, but this year the number will be approximately 170. I have seen empty pubs, and others are shutting down. Senator Colm Burke mentioned what was happening in the vicinity of UCC and the same applies to TCD. Café society is gaining; when offices shut down, they tend to reopened as cafés or fast-food outlets. If this presents a problem, we should have the up-to-date data. If we were to receive incorrect data from the OECD, we would be delighted to change them. In recent years, however, the figures have come down, probably because of the recession. There has also been a change in culture. As Government Senators mentioned, drink driving is utterly unacceptable to the present generation, for which I admire it hugely.
According to the Central Statistics Office, the share of income we spend on drink is less than 3%. The reduction in price since 2005 is about 3%, which is less than the reduction in prices in the economy as a whole because there is a recession. If one did not cut the price, one would not be able to sell the stuff. I wonder if concerns about a large decline in drink prices, leading to a massive increase in consumption, are borne out by the figures in recent years. Ireland has changed dramatically, particularly in the case of the young, with whom it is my privilege to work and teach.
The other point referred to in the motion concerns the relationship between youth crime and drink. About 20% of the 4,000 crimes committed by juveniles this year have been drink related, according to the Garda Commissioner's report. There are, therefore, over 600,000 young people not involved in such activity. We have real problems in banking, the provision of public services and with the public finances. Unless we find the aforementioned statistics to be solidly based, a lot of national energy could be wasted on this matter.
A minimum price for alcohol would enrich the suppliers, which I presume is not our intention. It certainly is not mine. Low prices are what we normally seek and I wish bodies in the energy sector were as good at lowering prices. "Below-cost selling" is a legal term, for which the Competition Authority has responsibility. I gather it is extremely difficult to prove and I am not so sure it has been. There was below-cost selling by banks and we had to bail them out, but the drink companies which we believe are engaged in below-cost selling are still solvent and profitable.
We have a belief, based on outdated numbers, that there is excessive alcohol consumption in Ireland. However, the OECD estimates show the level is down by 27%. It does not account for a major proportion of the household budget. Many other items are increasing in price, an issue I had hoped the House would address. Of course, very cheap alcohol can be damaging to individuals, but is the sale of drink in a corner shop, filling station or supermarket any more damaging than the sale of alcohol in pubs?
Well over 100 years ago we persuaded the British Government that Ireland had a massive alcohol problem and the way to deal with it was to restrict the number of pub licences. It did not make us any more sober, but it certainly made publicans far richer. One must, therefore, be aware of false routes that we are invited to take.
I have heard references to the position in Canada, Scotland and Northern Ireland — I have lived in all three — but I do not know why we chose these countries as role models. Why not look at Italy and France as countries in which alcohol is consumed without dire consequences? If there is co-operation with Northern Ireland, we will, undoubtedly, transfer the business back across the Border again, as happened before.
A final thought concerns net receipts from excise duties between 2003 and 2009. In that period receipts to the Minister for Finance from the sale of beer were down by €51 million; from cider, €3 million and from spirits, €41 million. Therefore, in these three categories the yield from excise duties was €95 million less. Meanwhile, wine sales yielded an extra €75 million, a trend we have all noted. The euro was worth far less in 2009 than in 2003, but on that basis, there was about €20 million less coming in to the Exchequer in excise duties in that period.
I would support the aims of those who tabled the motion if I could be persuaded that the level of alcohol consumption was still rising, which it is not. We are told this is being caused by low prices, which do not show up in the consumer price index. In addition, we are being told it is absorbing vast amounts of income, which is also not shown in the CSO data. Are we blaming the commodity or do we have a problem in health and social services which we need to correct? We need up-to-date data to discover what exactly has been happening since the start of the recession. Young people's attitudes have changed; those of drivers have certainly changed. They have moved away from pubs. Is it damaging if people bring a drink home rather than having it in the pub? I would prefer them to have it at home because they pose less of a danger to society there. Let us not condemn everything that has happened in recent times.
I apologise to the Minister of State for overrunning on time.
I wish to share time with Senator O'Keeffe.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister of State. We are grateful to her for expressing such a strong commitment to taking action on this issue, about which there is a great deal of concern, which concern has been expressed across the House. I commend Senator Noone and the Fine Gael group for tabling the motion.
We all support Senator Barrett's call for an evidence-based policy on tackling alcohol abuse. The Senator quoted some statistics. OECD figures for the level of alcohol consumption do not include the large volumes bought in Northern Ireland and which would have to be acknowledged in any study of the problem. I agree, however, that we need data and evidence on which to base a policy. The Minister of State also made this point. It is clear that there is great concern about, and growing evidence of, the harm caused by alcohol abuse. Senator Gilroy and others, including the Minister of State, have pointed out that pricing is only one component of a harm-reduction policy, although it is clearly an important one.
The Minister of State's commitment to have minimum retail pricing per gramme of alcohol, independent of excise duties, requires serious consideration. There are at least three other components, however, including the advertising of alcohol and sponsorship of sports fixtures. Other speakers have addressed these issues. As a new Senator in 2007, I raised an issue which had been brought to my attention by a constituent from Trinity College, that is, the fact that alcohol companies were sponsoring football teams which were selling jerseys to children. The spectre of children walking around advertising alcohol companies on their jerseys was hard to take. In fact, action was taken elsewhere to ban the practice and subsequently such jerseys were no longer sold here. To me, however, it was a clear lesson on the need to tackle advertising to ensure there was a change in the culture of alcohol abuse.
Clearly, the licensing laws need to be re-examined, as the Minister of State indicated. Other speakers have also pointed to the need for such a change. Our experience of licensing laws reform, however, has not been particularly constructive. Often the reforms introduced, many of which we supported for the best reasons, had counter-productive effects. For example, the ban on so-called "happy hours" — which was debated during the lifetime of the previous Seanad — has had the effect of bringing about day-long promotion of alcohol, whereby bars and clubs are seeking to circumvent the law. Some bars are offering free haircuts with cheap drink to attract customers.
Where are these bars?
It is very difficult to legislate in respect of such situations.
I am also concerned that paternalistic laws of the sort we have had in the past have not had the effect of reducing consumption, lessening the harm caused to people or bringing down the level of abuse. People have tended to binge drink because they see closing time as being imminent. Restricting opening hours can sometimes have a counterproductive effect. Again, we must examine the evidence in this regard.
I fully concur with Senator Gilroy that it is unusual for either of us to be in agreement with the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Michael McDowell, whose idea in respect of café bars represented a genuine attempt to try to change the culture that obtains here. We do not have a very good history in the context of making pubs welcoming to families, children and people who want to have a meal and a glass of wine. If we are concerned with culture change, we must promote the responsible use of alcohol. We must consider how we might encourage people to take social drinks, in moderation and usually with food, rather than to engage in binge drinking as has been the case heretofore.
The final matter to which I refer has not had much of an airing during this debate. However, it was raised at the "Alcohol — Where's the Harm?" conference which the Minister of State opened yesterday and at which Alcohol Action Ireland — which sponsored the conference — presented research relating to people's experiences in respect of alcohol. What struck me as I listened to what was said at the conference is the number of people who have gone out of their way to avoid drunken individuals or places which those who drink are known to frequent. People's behaviour in taking public transport is changed by their fear of alcohol. A large proportion of individuals or their families have experienced assaults in public spaces as a result of alcohol abuse by others.
There is a need to factor in planning and spatial strategies when considering the matter of controlling or curbing alcohol abuse. Dublin City Council is examining a spatial strategy to encourage families to visit city centre spaces to ensure that they will not become no-go areas as a result of the public consumption of alcohol by certain individuals. Events such as the St. Patrick's Day Festival have become associated with drink fuelled aggression and this is a matter which must be tackled in different ways.
We need a culture change. However, we must also examine the position with regard to the law on off-licences. For a long period, the focus has been on controlling on-licence premises. There is also a need to consider what happens in respect of the off-licence trade.
I welcome the Minister of State, who has displayed a warm and very genuine commitment in respect of this issue. I was grateful to hear her give a commitment in respect of getting to the bottom of the problem of alcohol misuse. There have been some dark moments in our history and perhaps this is another such moment which we will be obliged to tackle. As more people come on board and discuss the issue, it will be easier for us to deal with it.
The Minister of State referred to the proliferation of outlets. That is only matched by the proliferation in the number of young people on the streets, particularly late at night. These individuals adopt certain methods to try to imbibe alcohol before they go somewhere else. I spoke to someone recently who indicated that they had brought to a wedding a gift which they had placed under their seat. It was not a gift at all, rather it was a bottle of alcohol that was to be consumed during the reception because the person in question was not prepared to pay the prices charged at the bar. People are going to great lengths to drink in rather odd ways.
If we are to deal with the culture of "getting smashed" which is prevalent among young people, we must seek to establish a relationship between the Departments of Health and Education and Skills. When young people are given information relating to alcohol in their schools, it is presented in a very negative way. They are informed as to what happens when one gets drunk, namely, that one will be arrested, one will become very ill, and so on. It would be of major benefit if the two Departments could engage in a process of joined-up thinking to create some way of understanding young people and their wish to drink. They must also consider how we might counter this wish in an intelligent, more long-term way as opposed to merely wagging the finger at young people and telling them not to drink. That tends to have completely the wrong effect and encourages the young to do the exact opposite to what we have asked them to do.
On advertising and alcohol, I have engaged in lengthy debates with those involved in advertising who state that particular sports would not survive without the support of drinks companies. They also state that advertising revenues are the lifeblood of such sports. At the very time when we need children and young adults to take an interest in sport and in being active, the last thing we want to do by banning alcohol advertising is to leave a vacuum which will lead to sports either going into decline as a result of lost revenue or disintegrating altogether. As a result, the impetus for people to aspire to emulate their great sporting heroes would be lost just when it is needed. There is a need for the Department of Education and Skills to engage in some joined-up thinking with regard to how more sport might be included on the school curriculum. If we are to take action in respect of advertising and alcohol, we will be obliged to fill the vacuum that will inevitably be created by encouraging children, through the school curriculum, to become involved in sport. This would mean that children would be driven by their own understanding of what is involved and would not be obliged to rely on the support provided by sponsors and advertisers. I recognise that sponsors and advertisers have invested a great deal of money in sport but this is an aspect of the matter about which I feel particularly strongly.
I support the motion and I support the Minister of State in her efforts. The alcohol industry is particularly influential. I would not state that it is particularly influential with Government but it certainly had an indirect influence on many of my colleagues in the context of various debates on drink driving laws and other issues relating to alcohol. That was not healthy for the body politic. I am disappointed that the alcohol industry is represented on the national steering group charged with producing policy. I urge the Minister of State to be as strong as possible — I know this will be the case — in the context of playing her part in framing that policy. The Minister of State referred to the steering group finalising a policy framework but she and the Government will finalise that framework in actuality. I hope that will be done in the absence of influence from the industry. I accept that the industry is good in many ways, that it provides employment for many people and that it provides a service that people require. However, it must also be noted that immeasurable harm is being done.
The Minister of State referred to a number of concerns she harbours. While we all welcome and support the motion, it is important to recognise the issues that have been raised and to listen to the voices of those who do not fully agree with us. It is crucial that the Minister of State should engage with the authorities in Northern Ireland in particular because any actions taken on this side of the Border will have a major impact on people's shopping patterns. Alcohol is a major attraction for people when they are shopping for groceries, and so on. It is essential that we liaise with our counterparts in the North because if we do not do so, any action we take will not work.
People will list every possible reason this cannot be done. They will refer to European Union internal market rules and competition lawad nauseam. We should keep the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation out of it and proceed on the basis that this is a health issue. If we do so, I do not believe there will be any objections from Europe. Lawyers may raise objections but regardless of whether they do so it is extremely important that we should take action.
I look forward to the legislation relating to the sale of alcohol which it is promised to introduce next year. One relatively known aspect with regard to the law on alcohol is that it is extremely complicated. A small number of lawyers are becoming extremely wealthy as a result of the complex nature of the alcohol and licensing laws. It is important, therefore, that the Government should do everything in its power to simplify the legislation in this area.
I support the notion of a minimum price. I wonder whether such a price could be imposed in conjunction with excise duty because it is important that the State should derive some benefit. We need to consider the position with regard to opening hours. The late Mr. Brian Lenihan, a former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, restricted off-licence opening hours to 10 p.m. Many Scandinavian countries with problems similar to those we experience have even more restrictive opening hours. This is a matter to which consideration must be given. If a person plans his or her night's drinking, he or she will be less likely to engage in binge drinking. However, I have noticed many people on their way to and from pubs at 9 p.m. going into off-licences to purchase alcohol. There is no reason off-licences should not close at 7 p.m., other than the fact that there would be major objections. If a 7 p.m. closing time were introduced, people who needed to purchase alcohol could do so before that time. There is no need for people to buy alcohol on a whim at 9 p.m.
The late Mr. Brian Lenihan also established a particular committee in 2008 with which I raised the issue of under-age drinking. The solution to under-age drinking is very simple but it was not taken up at the time. I suggest that we prevent all people in secondary school — regardless of whether they are 18 or 19 years of age — purchasing alcohol. If someone is in secondary school, he or she should not be allowed to drink. In addition, a person in college should be over 18 years of age before he or she is allowed to purchase alcohol. I did not start drinking until I was 19. I find it incredible, therefore, that sixth year students might go to the pub immediately after completing their leaving certificate or that they might be served alcohol at their graduation. I was not even 17 when I sat the leaving certificate. Alcohol has no place in the secondary school system. Pub owners should not allow those who are studying for or who have just completed the leaving certificate on to their premises without their parents. This would, in one fell swoop, undercut the peer pressure exerted in schools by those who are 18 and who can legitimately imbibe alcohol. Such peer pressure gives rise to a sort of race to the bottom in the context of encouraging young people to start drinking.
If we ban those who are still attending secondary school from purchasing alcohol, this would have a hugely positive effect in the context of undermining the under-age drinking culture. Not allowing young people to drink until they are in college and over 18 would create a level playing field. I would like my suggestion in this regard to be considered because there is a massive problem in the context of under-age drinking. I did not engage in under age drinking and I only drink from time to time now. I went to an off-licence two months ago and the 12 bottles of beer I bought are still in the fridge at home. This debate has reminded me of it.
I enjoy going to the pub from time to time, to be honest, and nobody should be ashamed of that. I enjoy a bit of craic. There is a significant societal cost arising from this issue and publicans and the drinks industry should be aware of it. There is a big problem in Letterkenny and local authorities have powers under legislation to introduce by-laws for certain areas. If there is a problem with low price alcohol or promotions in a local authority area, I would challenge local authorities to introduce by-laws to deal with the issue. It is within their power and they should not wait for the Government to act. As part of this strategy the Government could introduce guidance to local authorities if they have no experience.
We will support the measure but we should not dismiss people who raise concerns. I did not hear Senator Barrett's contribution but there are economic issues pertinent to below-cost selling of alcohol, and they should be noted.
I resent Letterkenny being mentioned as having a drink problem.
I am not picking on the Senator. I understand there was an issue in Letterkenny with regard to low price alcohol and admissions to hospital which can be directly related to offers in a number of pubs in Letterkenny. I took it as an example but it happens in other towns. If there is a problem in certain towns, and not just Letterkenny, I urge local authorities to use existing powers in the issue.
I call Senator Gilroy to conclude.
I am sorry about the confusion surrounding the closure of the debate.
What is the order for concluding the debate?
I am speaking in the absence of the proposer.
What time will the debate conclude?
There are four minutes left.
I will allow Senator Colm Burke some time.
I thank the Minister of State for giving us time to deal with the matter. There were very constructive contributions from everybody and the Minister of State has a good grasp of the issue. The amendments——
As the Senator has already spoken, he is not allowed to conclude.
He is summing up.
He is acting as Leader to close the debate.
According to Standing Orders, the proposer may sum up but she is not here. It can also be somebody who has not already spoken.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.