I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill. I strongly support the thrust of the Bill. Some small issues still remain to be dealt with concerning craft beer, for example, because that industry does not have the advertising power to do the damage alcohol does in society. I am not against making minor changes to the legislation but we cannot pull back in terms of the big import of the Bill. We all heard reports in the past week of what happened in Bandon where young people went to a non-drink disco totally tanked up and a field hospital had to be set up to deal with them. I am not against people having a drink and I am not against people having a good time but to me that was neither; it was a total abuse of alcohol. To say that advertising, availability, and the society we have created has nothing to do with that is to deny reality. Let us be honest about it; drinking habits have changed dramatically over the years. There was a time when young people in particular tended to drink beer and they thought they were big people doing that. Now it seems that the drink of choice is hard spirits in a totally unregulated situation, often outside of places where there is no control whatsoever. Therefore, anything that can be done to control such drinking should be done.
There are powerful industries out there that always promote their side of the argument with powerful money. They say it is good for the economy and they also say they have drink awareness programmes to try to discourage people from over-abusing alcohol. The reality is the drinks industry is about selling drink and it focuses on young people in particular. A lot of advertising is about glamorising drink and much of it is ruthless and focused. The notion that such companies spend millions of euro on the promotion of alcohol and that they are not aware of the harm it does is absolutely false. We also hear the argument that the purpose of advertising is a brand competition and that they are not trying to encourage people to drink or to drink more is also false. We know there is a huge problem with alcohol in society. It is an attitude problem.
We hear time and again about the problems in hospitals. Anyone who examines the admissions to accident and emergency units at weekends, in particular, or when young people or adults are out "enjoying" themselves must recognise that alcohol is a major cause of the problems in hospitals. We are storing up a massive problem for the future due to the increased habit of drinking hard drinks to excess. Many young people who think they are healthy will wind up with drink-related conditions affecting the liver, for example, later in life. The prospect is absolutely frightening.
When I was a Minister of State with some of the same responsibilities as the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, I had many meetings with Sr. Consilio and I visited Cuan Mhuire. It is only when one listens to people like her or those involved in Hope House that one realises the damage done by alcohol in society. The people in such places are the ones who seek treatment. One could ask how many people do not seek treatment. We know of the damage that is done in families by drink. We know of the violence that is associated with drink and how many innocent people get hurt by drink. Despite all of that the drinks lobby tries to lure us into a state of denial and tells us we do not have a problem. Therefore, the Bill is very timely. In fact, it is fair to say that it is a pity it has taken so long.
The off-licence industry is a problem. Anybody who tells me it is not does not know what is going on. We see young people with massive amounts of drink who are consuming it without any control from parents or from a publican, if they were in a public house or members of the public in the public house. They have to get the drink somewhere and it tends to be in off-licences. Therefore, anything we can do to make it more difficult to access drink must be taken on board.
I accept that there are different ways of doing that, including ways that are more or less expensive for the shop owner. Amendments were made during the debate in the Seanad to cut down on costs, but not to cut down on the effect of the Bill, which has to be to try to make alcohol less visible, less attractive and less normal.
I wonder what effect it would have on our society if we could reduce the abuse of alcohol by a quarter, which we might think would be a fairly modest target. What effect would it have on the number of court cases going to court? What effect would it have on the number of young people getting in trouble with the law for doing absolutely crazy things while drunk and getting criminal convictions, where they should have none, as a consequence? What difference would it make to the health services? We are always complaining that health services do not get enough money, but we never ask ourselves how many people add unnecessarily to the cost of providing such services through totally irresponsible behaviour that is encouraged by a very powerful industry. It is only when all of these factors are weighed up that we realise we need to tackle this issue.
It was very interesting to listen to the radio the other day and to the two doctors who spoke, who were very reasonable. The interesting fact that came out was that very few drinks are spiked and that the main spiking of drinks is just adding more and harder alcohol, including spirits. That is what is happening and we can delude ourselves as much as we want that it is something more sinister. Usually, the explanations are simpler.
We must also recognise that this is a very sensitive subject. Statistics show us that alcohol has been a contributor to suicide in certain cases. It is something that is very difficult to talk about because so many families have been hurt by suicide. Currently, there is much talk about reducing the number of car accidents and car fatalities, which, thanks be to God, is well under 200. However, what we totally ignore is that more than 500 people die by suicide every year and that in an appreciable number of cases alcohol has been a contributory factor.
The Committee Stage of this Bill will deal with the smaller points by way of minor amendments. It is a good idea, which I always support, that Bills get a thorough airing and that they are looked at in some detail to see that one is not doing something which will have no benefit. The labelling of craft beer is an obvious example. That is not the kind of market to go for anyway because it does not engage in mass advertising. We must make sure we do not dilute the main and powerful thrust of this Bill.
I could never understand when in government that we could not seem to introduce minimum pricing. Arguments were put forward that EU law would not allow it but I understand that has been overcome in Scotland which went ahead, faced it head on and took on the challenge. That is the most powerful deterrent one could introduce. Some people will say this will impact the poor but I do not believe that will happen because people have a fixed amount of money and, therefore, it could help them substantially because it could mean less consumption, less damage and a more justifiable reason for not over-indulging in alcohol.
I am pleased that this Bill has eventually been brought before the House. We have to face up to the society in which we live and face up to the fact that by standing back we are hurting so many people, both young and old in our society. We have to stop glorifying as a rite of passage the kind of abuse of alcohol we have seen in more recent decades. I believe that has to change. One of the small benefits that came from the downturn was a reduction in alcohol abuse, but that is quickly disappearing again. We have a major problem with drugs in this country - it is a problem in Dublin and it is now a problem in Galway - but the most pervasive drug that does serious harm in our society is alcohol. The targeting of where alcohol is available without supervision has to be key to the future. I spend my Saturday afternoons visiting country pubs. I am often in pubs for meetings at night. I can honestly say I do not believe the major issue arises in the supervised and controlled setting of the public house. Most people will not do in public what they will do in private. We have many cases of this.
Many women will accept that a great deal of violence against women is caused by intoxicated men. That is something we can never forget. Many of us have come across people in our lives who have been assaulted and worse. In many such cases, one of the contributory causes has been that the men involved have literally drunk themselves stupid. Tá mé ag tacú leis an mhéid atá á dhéanamh ag an Rialtas. Tá súil agam go mbeidh sé ina dhlí go luath agus tá súil agam go mbeidh an-éifeacht aige. Teastaíonn go géar uainn déileáil leis an bhfadhb seo agus caithfimid é sin a dhéanamh.