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[Oireachtas] National Drugs Strategy: Presentation. (01 Mar 2006)

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Chairman: As part of the joint committee's ongoing work on its report into the inclusion of alcohol in the national drugs strategy, I am pleased to welcome a delegation from the White Oaks Centre in Donegal. I declare an interest as the centre is located in my local area where it is held in high regard. I also welcome Dr. Conor Farren from St. Patrick's Hospital, Dublin. The delegation will address the issue of alcohol treatment services.

The previous national drugs strategy was driven by the need to address the problem of heroin use. It explicitly excluded alcohol on the basis that tackling the drugs problem should not be diluted by including a soft drug such as alcohol. Having passed the mid-point of the strategy, the joint committee considers it important to compile a report setting out the reasons for including alcohol in the next one. The evidence presented to the committee to date indicates that alcohol is one of the most abused drugs in the country and that drugs and alcohol should no longer be regarded as separate problems. The committee was pleased to receive a delegation from Women’s Aid two weeks ago and welcomes the delegation of practitioners who can outline their experiences on the ground in urban and rural settings. I invite Dr. Farren to make his presentation first, followed by Fr. Carlin. We will then open up the discussion for comments.

Dr. Conor Farren: I thank the joint committee for the honour of inviting me to appear before it. I am a consultant psychiatrist at St. Patrick’s Hospital and chairman of the addiction faculty of the Irish College of Psychiatrists. I will make three main points. First, alcohol abuse is rampant in Ireland and getting worse. Second, options for the treatment of alcoholism are limited and the disorder appears to be one for which no comprehensive plan for the development of treatment in the future is in place. Third, alcoholism is eminently treatable and investment in treatment can produce significant benefits. At St. Patrick’s Hospital we have a 30 year history of treating alcoholism. I will present some statistics to prove just how successful that treatment can be, even for the most complicated patients. How bad are alcohol problems in Ireland? Unfortunately, they are very bad and worsening. I will provide shocking, readily available and verifiable statistics on the problem. Irish people consume vast quantities of alcohol, above and beyond what is normal in Europe, including the United Kingdom. In 2001 we drank 14.4 litres of pure alcohol per head of adult population, the second highest figure in the 25 EU member states. The equivalent figure in the United Kingdom was 8.5 litres, which is closer to the European norm. While the figure declined slightly to 13.5 litres in 2002, we retain our pre-eminent place in the European league table. Alcohol consumption has increased by a staggering 40% in the ten years to 2003. This is unprecedented in Irish history, runs counter to the overall European trend and is unique in the world. Essentially, we went from a nation of normal drinkers to alcohol abusers in this ten year period. The reasons for this increase are varied and include an increase in disposable income, increased laxity in licensing laws and the granting of licence extensions, lack of enforcement of existing licensing laws and restrictions and significant expenditure and marketing by the drinks industry, particularly to young people. The industry has been very successful in this regard. This increase in alcohol consumption has had many negative consequences, not least an increase in the suicide rate of 44% over the same ten year period. A significant part of this rise is attributable to drinking, particularly binge drinking among young men. Previously, I had the privilege of making a presentation to the Joint Committee on Health and Children on research we had conducted into the association between suicide and alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, there appears to be a very high correlation between the two, notably between suicide and a recent increase in binge drinking among young men. Ireland has the highest incidence of binge drinking in Europe among men and, increasingly, women. In 2002 we spent €6 billion on alcohol, or €2,000 per head of adult population per annum. In 2002 the World Health Organisation said alcohol was the third highest cause of disease in Europe, causing 9.2% of the disease burden, second only to tobacco and blood pressure. It is a major cause of health problems. It is important to note that alcohol causes five times the health damage caused by illicit drugs. In Ireland, alcohol-related costs ran at €2.65 billion in 2003, which sum accounts for the loss of earnings due to alcohol, alcohol-related crime and violence, road deaths due to alcohol and direct treatment costs.

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