Alcohol Consumption: Statements (Resumed)

I wish to share time with Senator O'Keeffe.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish him every success in his new role. Many of my colleagues have made reference to the national substance misuse strategy report and I will not go through all of that again. However, one cannot read it without being shocked and horrified at some of the statistics it contains. In particular, I wish to refer to the statistics relating to young people, whereby more than half of 16 year olds have been drunk and one in five drink weekly. As a mother of a 16 year old and as a former teacher, having had four children go through leaving certificate and also having gone to collect them after junior certificate teenage discos, I have been absolutely horrified to see students, who I would know as being fantastic and well behaved in class, out of it from the effects of drink at 16 years of age. It is horrific and would be horrific to their parents if they knew it was going on.

I have been a teetotaller all my life. Very often, having spoken afterwards to students in class, they would ask me "Oh, but do you not drink?", as if there was something radically wrong with a person if they do not drink. Even at 18, they can be remorseful for drinking and for having started to drink at 16.

This is an area where we need to be more forceful. We have alcohol strategies in schools and alcohol projects and so on. Perhaps we could go one step further and highlight the ill health that is associated with alcohol. Another suggestion I would throw out is to perhaps raise the legal age for drinking from 18 to 21, when people are more adult and can make better decisions for themselves. Perhaps that would do something and I would certainly be in favour of it.

We need to be more forceful in highlighting just how much a young person's life can be adversely affected by alcohol. What the World Health Organization considers to be risky or binge drinking is taking 75 g of alcohol on a single drinking occasion, at least once a month, which is four pints of beer, seven pub measures of spirits or a bottle of wine. I know there are many young people who would be shocked to hear they are being classed as binge drinkers every time they go out, or even stay in.

The teenage years are considered to be a time when lifestyle patterns are established. Starting to drink at an early age increases the person's chance of developing problems with alcohol use in later life. This is again where I would like to call into question Senator Barrett's statistics. According to the European school project on alcohol and drugs, Irish children report being drunk more often than those in most other European countries - some 26% in the last month in Ireland in comparison to a European average of 18%.

The question of targeting the marketing of alcohol is another huge area.

I must ask the Senator to conclude.

Excuse me, will the Minister of State reply today or in the next session?

The Minister of State will respond to the contributions that have been made today in the time allotted to him, rather than in a closing statement.

The Minister of State will come in again and he will reply again on the day we resume this debate.

Thank you. I call Senator O'Keeffe.

I propose, given the Minister of State is coming back, that Senator Moran might have her time back. I would be happy to wait until the Minister of State returns.

I wished to say more about the marketing and advertising of alcohol. Children and young people are bombarded with positive images of alcohol through marketing of the product, as was referred to earlier. In effect, the alcohol industry is the child’s primary educator on alcohol. A recent report by a leading youth organisation in Ireland revealed that young people were highly aware of alcohol marketing and had noticed marketing on television, in magazines, on the Internet and in on-street flyers. Senator Leyden referred to television, and "Coronation Street" and even Irish soaps such as "Fair City" suggest everything takes place in the pub - I sometimes think they drink, eat and sleep in the pub.

To say that children and young people are not influenced by alcohol marketing is equivalent to saying that they suddenly wake up and begin to see and hear on their 18th birthday. They are constantly absorbing information and are the primary users of new media. In Ireland, there is no statutory regulation of alcohol marketing, just a voluntary code, and this code does not include the marketing of alcohol through digital media.

Besides advertising, children are target-marketed through sponsorship of sporting and music events, promotions and offers of alcohol brand-related merchandise and product placement in popular entertainment. Perhaps this would be a good place to start. There has already been plenty of reaction from the drinks industry to the calls from the national substance misuse strategy report for an extensive range of prohibitions and restrictions on the advertising of alcohol products.

I highly commend the recommendations within the report and I fully support the Minister of State in his work in this area.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I was a member of the sub-group of the Joint Committee on Health that put together the report which the former Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, worked on with the joint committee. One of the things that struck me about the work not just of the sub-committee but of the committee itself, which signed off on the report, was that there was cross-party support for initiatives which we all want to see the Government take. Across most of the areas, with the exception of minimum pricing but including the areas of advertising, the presentation of alcohol and in terms of the hierarchy of wanting to ensure that prevention, intervention and education are the No. 1 priority, this cross-party support was important, although, of course, the other issues are also important.

One of the areas where there was not cross-party support and where my party was not in a position to give consent in terms of the document was in regard to minimum pricing because we do not believe it will work. If pricing is to be used as an instrument to reduce consumption, we need to look at what is the best way to do that. I believe the best way is to increase taxes and excise duty on alcohol, where the money raised comes back to the Exchequer and any extra revenue is ring-fenced for the prevention, intervention and education options which we all want to see happen. While I would want the Minister of State to tease out whether the Government is considering how to make this work in practice, if this was to be the case, we would simply enrich the profits of the people who sell the alcohol, whereas the intention behind the initiative is to prevent and reduce consumption. I have a very real concern about minimum pricing, although we maintain the whole area of below-cost selling should be dealt with.

What was very interesting was that part of the committee's work was to have all of the so-called players, including the drinks industry, come before the committee. Like Senator Crown, the phrase "lies, damned lies and statistics" comes to mind, as conflicting reports came from different people who represent different sectors of the industry. The reality is that the people who produce and sell alcohol had a very real vested interest in making sure that alcohol consumption was not reduced, and we have to be very clear about and conscious of that.

Our responsibility is to protect people's health and well-being and reduce consumption. The drinks industry should not be partners in the process. We must be clear about that. We have to take decisions based on reduction. The advertising of alcohol should be banned completely. The distribution of flyers by some of the leading multiples advertising cheap alcohol must end. It is wrong also to allow flyers advertising ringing one’s local off-licence to get alcohol delivered to one’s door. We must be adult and mature in what we do. I agree with a watershed of 9 p.m. for radio and television advertising. We are not seeking to ban alcohol. Some might see that as an option but I do not.

No reference was made to advertising in the Minister of State’s speech but much reference was made in the committee to social media and the fact that Diageo, for example, and some of the big alcohol companies use Facebook and social media to target young people. It is a difficult area given that social media are global but we must be conscious that when we look at the advertising of alcohol it is not sufficient to focus on the traditional methods of advertising such as radio, television and the print media as social media now exist, which are hugely important and much more difficult to regulate. One of the recommendations made by the joint committee was that we would also examine the regulation of social media.

I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, the best of luck in his efforts to reduce the abuse of alcohol. I hope he is bold and radical but at the same time sensible and pragmatic about what is possible. We would all like to arrive at the utopia outlined by Senator Crown, but we must do it in stages. We must be bold in the initial steps we take on the basis of the reports before the Minister of State currently that were commissioned by the previous Minister of State.

I wish to share my time with Senator Healy Eames, four minutes and one minute.

Lundbeck, which is a pharmaceutical company that specialises in psychiatric drugs, had a conference recently in Dublin which was very interesting. Alastair Campbell spoke at it. The conference was an eyeopener for many who attended. The statistic that alcohol is involved in half of all suicides is shocking. When one hears it first it can easily pass one by as a statistic but if one were to replace it with practically any other substance then one could be guaranteed that we would make a greater effort to curb its use and influence on society. It seems that there is an endemic acceptance of alcohol and its effect on the way we behave in this country.

I welcome the work of the steering group and the recommendations. Its report is a roadmap for future policy direction on the use and misuse of alcohol. I agree with Senator Crown that we must take a radical, holistic approach to the issue. Alcohol encompasses many strands of society and education is fundamental. The point was made that young people do not drink and drive now, which is fantastic, but it has come about through education and cultural change. The issue must be tackled from the top down and the bottom up - from every angle - in order that we realise how unusual our relationship with alcohol is in this country. The key recommendations of the group have been discussed and are worthy of debate but I do not propose to go into them as other speakers have dealt extensively with them. Any measure, such as minimum pricing, that could help to reduce the overall consumption of alcohol is to be welcomed.

The commencement of section 9, in addition to further advertising restrictions, is vital and must be enacted in parallel with minimum pricing legislation. I disagree with Senator Mary White's proclamations about Fianna Fáil’s great success in this area. I accept a code of conduct was put in place but it called for certain measures to be introduced “as far as possible” but they are not being introduced and the code is not being adhered to or policed. Section 9 was never enacted. The previous Government was lobbied heavily by the big supermarkets, which is why the section was not enacted. Let us call it as it is. I hope we as a Government will have the strength and courage to stand up to such lobbying and to implement the provisions of the legislation.

Pubs are a fundamental part of Irish culture and, but for the excesses, it would be a perfectly acceptable culture. We must come up with creative ways to get people into pubs who do not want to drink. I do not want to drink all the time when I am in a pub. I rarely do so. I asked for peppermint tea recently in a pub and the look I got suggested I had not ten but 20 heads. We must come up with creative ways across the board to deal with alcohol. Publicans and those who are trying to survive in a market concerned with the sale of alcohol must come up with creative ways to deal with the problems. I had a million other things to say but, unfortunately, the time is short. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, for his presence.

I thank Senator Noone for the one minute of her speaking time. I appreciate it. I have one main point to make to the Minister of State, who is most welcome. He is a former Member of this House. We sat together in the Chamber. I congratulate him on his Ministry. We are expecting great things.

I know he can deliver them. There is no pressure whatsoever. As a nation we have a dangerous relationship with alcohol. It is a culture – the word should not be misunderstood. If something is part of the culture then it is accepted. One of the most shocking things I learned recently was from the child deaths report. A total of 196 children died in care in the past ten years, and 68 of them died in their own homes. They were in and out of care. The single biggest influencing factor in the home was alcohol abuse by parents. Senator Noone related that alcohol is a contributory factor in 50% of suicides. It is also contributing to child deaths.

Senator Healy Eames’s time is up.

It is a difficult job to be a parent, not to mind being under the influence of alcohol as well. Many of those concerned became parents sooner than they planned because they got pregnant as a result of being under the influence of alcohol. We must tackle the issue. The Minister of State is now in charge of primary health care. He has a key resource in public health nurses.

Senator Healy Eames is eating into somebody else’s time. I ask her to finish.

I will finish. I apologise but I wish to make this point. Public health nurses knock on 10,000 doors a day. I am the patron of the association and they tell me about it every day. They can detect where child welfare issues relating to alcohol arise. I urge the Minister of State to please involve them in the solution-----

I ask Senator Healy Eames to conclude. It is not fair on other Senators.

-----and to involve also the Child and Family Support Agency.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, for being present and in particular for his pledge to bring a concrete set of proposals to Government in the near future. That is very welcome. I also welcome the work done by the steering group, in particular the work done by the former Minister of State, Deputy Shortall.

In his summary the Minister of State said that ambivalence is now inexcusable. I agree with that. Reference was made to the prospect of increasing the price of alcohol and perhaps reducing advertising. They are the two big picture issues. A brand of vodka is now spending millions on advertising. It is making it look really attractive. It has beautiful colouring and what looks like balloons on the bottles. It looks like something one wants to have. I do not even drink vodka but I cannot help but be struck by the beauty of the advertising. I do not know what the proposals are on smoking but it is clear that branding and packaging considerations must also apply to alcohol because there is a big advertising campaign afoot, as was the case with alcopops, the sweetened alcoholic drink. That is one area to which I wish to draw the Minister of State’s attention.

The Minister of State is aware that young people now engage in a habit known as pre-drinking. That is what happens when we start to lower or increase the age for the consumption of alcohol. One drives them indoors. They buy cheaper and cheaper alcohol. It is gut-rot stuff.

They are having four or five very stiff drinks before they even leave the house because drink is so expensive. I appreciate the dilemma we and the Minister of State are in as we try to work out which bit to correct. If we correct one bit, we will upset another. People bring cheap drink to weddings and other social occasions in their bags because they cannot afford to buy it at the bar. They drink it from under the table. I appreciate the pricing mechanism issue is not that simple, as one cannot just raise prices because there is a knock-on effect further down the line.

I draw the Minister of State's attention to the fact that when the Seanad Public Consultation Committee met in June, one of the many speakers was Dr. Trina McCarthy of the National Cancer Control Programme. She mentioned specifically that 1,200 cases of cancer diagnosed each year were caused by alcohol and that 25% of all alcohol-related deaths were due to alcohol-associated cancers, a very high figure.

Representatives of the North West Alcohol Forum also spoke at the committee. Mr. Eamon O'Kane is the man in charge of the forum which is trying hard to bring about the change in society about which several Senators spoke. Senator Catherine Noone mentioned the problem of drink driving. We have obviously done some good in persuading young people to become more interested in how their parents behave. They can be very good at telling their parents to stop smoking. We have done a lot in tackling the problem of smoking, although we have not won the battle. However, we really need to look at how we can address the issue among much younger children. Can we be brave and admit we must start this conversation much earlier? Clearly, 15 and 16 year olds are drinking. I know of others aged 12 and 13 years and if we do not engage with them until much later in the debate, the damage will have been done and the patterns set at a much younger age.

The North West Alcohol Forum is holding a major conference on the issue in November and specifically seeking to find ways by which it can engage with local leaders in voluntary and community groups, the Garda, the HSE, psychology services, public representatives and so on. There must be something to be said for that model which is different from banning or taxing in that it deals with the much wider challenge we face. As every speaker has noted, this is about Irish society which has always had a warped relationship with alcohol. Part of our responsibility is to try to change this by raising the issues to do with alcohol with children at an earlier age. That is a brave thing to say because it will be said we cannot talk to children about drink. However, if we do not talk to them about it, they will talk to each other. They know which drinks to mix, which plastic bag will hold alcohol without breaking and how to smuggle it into discos. They know what they are doing and are leaving us to one side because we are not part of the conversation with them. I urge the Minister of State to find a way to start such a conversation, perhaps in tandem with the Minister for Education and Skills.

Senator Michael Mullins has only two minutes. Does he wish to avail of them now or would he prefer to wait until the next day?

I will take them now.

I congratulate the Minister of State, welcome him to the Chamber and wish him well, as he has a major challenge on his hands. I am very pleased to hear he is to bring a set of proposals to the Government in the near future.

Many issues have been covered, notably the devastation caused by alcohol to health and in families through domestic violence and child abuse. There are a number of points the Minister of State may need to keep in mind when he submits the report. We must start to educate young people at a much earlier age, perhaps in primary school, on the harm caused by alcohol. I am old enough to remember the time when the primary schoolteacher really hammered into us the dangers of abusing alcohol.

There is the issue of the availability of cheap drink. The Minister of State should be brave and tax alcohol heavily. There is an opportunity for the Government to raise revenue and help in reducing consumption. The easy availability of alcohol was mentioned by many speakers. It should be difficult to purchase it in every large supermarket and off-licence premises. It should be sold in a segregate area within stores.

I have a major concern that was raised with me by a number of people. The large multiples are manipulating the VAT system in a way that leaves them in a position to sell alcohol cheaply. The Minister of State and the Department of Finance should look at the VAT returns of the large multiples. There is a major issue in this regard, about which many are concerned.

The advertising and marketing of alcohol-----

I hate to interrupt the Senator, but I am obliged to call the Minister of State.

I would appreciate being given a few extra minutes on a future occasion.

I just wanted to tell the Minister of State that the people, certainly their public representatives, are with him on this issue. We very much welcome the set of proposals he will bring to the Government. However, I urge him to look at the VAT system as it pertains to the sale of alcohol by the multiples.

We have noted the Senator's name for the next debate.

This has been an excellent debate. It was very interesting to listen to the various views expressed and insights given by every speaker. The great value of a debate such as this lies in the numbers who come to listen and respond to others, which is always important in a debate.

The issue is not as clear-cut as we would like it to be, as serving politicians, as we observe the problem. I speak not only as a public representative but also as a parent who can see on a weekly, if not daily, basis what is happening in the country and the suburbs I know best. There has definitely been a change in the pattern of drinking, in how and where people drink and how often they do so. I agree with those who say we should rely to a large extent on evidence in what we do as politicians, but particularly as a Government. We should look to see what the evidence is for the policy proposals we intend to bring forward because there is always a risk in a debate such as this that we can be drawn along not only by anecdotal evidence but also by the evidence of what we see and feel. We observe terrible things happening as a consequence of the use and misuse of alcohol, but we should only bring forward a proposal if we think it will have an impact. Sometimes that may be difficult for us to accept.

I have been considering this issue for a few weeks. Senator John Crown in a very striking intervention in the debate gave a list of the consequences if no alcohol was consumed in the country. He was being realistic, as he always is, and not carrying his point through to advocate a ban on alcohol. None of us believes that would be possible to achieve and many of us think it might not necessarily be desirable to have a ban on alcohol. There are many examples where it was banned, not only here but also elsewhere and there can be unintended consequences of such a policy approach. I do not make this point as an excuse for not doing as much we should. We should do the maximum we can achieve in this round of policy making, but we should also be realistic. We should be able to defend the policy proposals we bring forward and point to their likely impact. Neither do I believe we should see the set of proposals we will introduce and implement as being the end of the road but as an important part of what we want to achieve. It is not necessarily the first step. In fairness, this is not the first Government to address the issue. It is true that there were inadequacies in some of the policy responses in the past, something that was shown as much by experience as much as anything else. That may have been the case because of certain influences and vested interests in bringing to bear their viewpoints. On occasion, in some cases, their power was inordinate. We must contend with this fact. However, let us not see this set of proposals as the end of the road but as the next step, one which I hope will prove very robust in addressing the misuse and abuse of alcohol.

I thank all of the Senators for their comments which were full of insight and experience. We had a very good debate.

One or two things have occurred to me following comments made by various colleagues. Senator Gilroy, and his sentiments have been echoed by others, talked about us looking to ourselves. He suggested that we should not take this as an opportunity to engage in finger wagging at young people and Senator Hayden made the same point. His comments are true. Every one of us must look at our own behaviour and conduct. Some people do not drink which is admirable but people make that choice for their own reasons. Most of us consume alcohol. Many of us are parents and we are concerned about what the next generation is doing. As Senator Gilroy has said, let us examine the pattern of our own behaviour and ask those questions to give us perspective but do not use it as an excuse for inaction.

Various Senators referred to the report by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. I have seen it but I have not had an opportunity to read it in great depth. I will consider it as part of deliberations that will take place in the coming weeks.

Other colleagues asked about proposals but I cannot indicate exactly when they will be brought forward. I see it in terms of weeks, not months. I hope that it will be a short period of weeks.

I know that we are tight for time so I cannot respond to each contribution individually. I shall make an attempt to do so on the next occasion that I close the debate.

Senator Barrett made a point about patterns and changes in alcohol consumption. Senator Crown, in his response, was right about the trajectory of the consumption pattern in the past few years. He correctly pointed out that there was a huge increase in consumption. Senator Colm Burke stated some figures which were right. Recently there has been a small decrease for the precise reasons outlined by Senator Crown but that is not the end of the story. So what? The number has decreased a little but the issue still needs to be addressed. Even if it is not a question about the quantity of alcohol being consumed there is definitely an issue when it comes to the pattern, location, type and in what circumstances people drink.

A Senator made the point that it is hard to predict the impact and effects of concentrated alcohol products and there is a lot of education needed. Senator O'Keeffe touched on the need for responsibility when it comes to the marketing and packaging of such products. She wondered if people knew what they are buying and drinking.

Senator Barrett, as the good and insightful economist he is, asked for us to be careful not to make policy decisions that will favour a particular economic unit and interest in society. It is inevitable that some areas of society or interests will be favoured by a policy change but one does not make a policy change to favour them.

Let us take the point made by Senator Henry and others that wherever drink is found it is still harmful. A compelling argument was made for people to drink in a controlled environment. Without sounding overly nannyish, a case can be made for a controlled environment that allows people to gather together at a particular time. I hope that they look after one another afterwards and have an interest in how and where they are going and how they get home. There is a case to be made for policy instruments that favour that approach to drinking rather than the chaos that is often associated with drinking, particularly by young people.

The Minister of State has one minute remaining.

I agree with the point made by Senator Mary Ann O'Brien that there is a complete absence of labelling on alcohol products. Most products have some labelling but alcohol products do not carry health warnings or interventions. I shall give myself away slightly by saying the following. In order to read the alcohol content on a label that is on a bottle of wine I need more than a pair of glasses. The writing is so small that a microscope would be more appropriate. That makes it difficult to find out whether a product has a low alcohol content. At a minimum the level of alcohol should be prominently displayed. I agree with the Senator that the information on the label should be broader.

An enormous amount of issues have been raised by the Senators and there is much for me to reflect on. The information will be of assistance to me when I draft proposals and I look forward to returning for the second bout of the debate. I can assure the Senators that their comments shall make a large contribution to my deliberations, and that of the Government, on the issue.

I thank the Minister of State. The House now stands adjourned until 2.30 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 1.45 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.