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Home > Joint Committee on Health and Children debate. National substance misuse strategy report: discussion.

[Oireachtas] Joint Committee on Health and Children debate. National substance misuse strategy report: discussion. (15 Mar 2012)

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Chairman: I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for primary care, Deputy Shortall, and Dr. Tony Holohan, chief medical officer at the Department of Health and chairperson of the steering group on the national substance misuse strategy. I also welcome those in the public Gallery including members of the media. I congratulate Dr. Holohan and the Minister of State on their work to date on the national misuse of substance strategy. I commend Dr. Holohan on the report published. The committee also published a report, which we hope will dovetail with the work done by the Minister of State and Dr. Holohan.

Before I ask the witnesses to make their opening remarks I advise them they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of utterances at the committee meeting. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease making remarks on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled only to qualified privilege in respect of their remarks. They are directed that only comments or evidence connected to the subject matter of this meeting are to be given. They are asked to respect the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a Member of the Oireachtas or a person outside the Houses in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee. It is important that on the eve of St. Patrick’s weekend, one of the biggest weekends in the Irish calendar and a big weekend for binge drinking, we have this opportune moment to address the issue of alcohol misuse. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, to address the meeting.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):

I thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it today. I am pleased to have another opportunity to discuss the problem of alcohol misuse in the country and how we might approach tackling it. The committee has produced a report which is a very welcome development. I read it with interest and I very much welcome the committee’s engagement on the issue of alcohol misuse. I know it has had extensive hearings on the matter. It is timely that the report was published shortly before the report of the steering group. We have two very comprehensive reports which will form the basis of future early action in this area.

Having two new reports raises the question of whether we have had too many reports over the years. For the past 20 years there has been a proliferation of reports and the difficulty has been that many of these lay on the shelf and were left to gather dust as very little action was taken on foot of them. I want to make a clear commitment that this will not happen to the steering group’s report or to the report produced by the committee.

The approach taken by the steering group, the Department and the committee has been to look at the problem of alcohol misuse from a public health perspective and to consider the very substantial damage done to public health physically and mentally by our unhealthy relationship with alcohol and the fact we consume such large volumes. The steering group’s report is very stark with regard to the public health and protection agenda. It reported that potentially 1.5 million people in Ireland drink in a harmful way.

At this point we have little choice but to deal comprehensively with the problem. As public representatives we have a clear picture of the damage alcohol does to our society. We see it first hand in our constituencies. We meet people who have problem drinkers in their families and whose families suffer various harms as a result of alcohol misuse. We also see it very graphically in the public order problems caused in our constituencies. Dr. Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, will speak about the evidence on the harm alcohol misuse causes. This evidence in aggregate is quite clear; alcohol is the source of many harms and dangers to Irish society therefore there is no more room for equivocation on this matter. The evidence will be presented to us and the onus on us as public representatives is to take action.

We are all familiar with the situation in cities and towns throughout the country on weekend nights. We see excesses, raucous behaviour, damage to property and assaults as a result of the alcohol-fuelled activity in which so many of our young people engage. We are also familiar with the issues that arise on an ongoing basis at public meetings we attend about the misuse of alcohol and harmful alcohol imbibing causing major problems in local communities and housing estates. It is very intimidating for older people in particular and for young people who do not engage in this type of activity. In my experience one of the most common issues that arises at public meetings is antisocial activity associated with alcohol misuse.

Those of us who are parents are very conscious of the dangers that exist for young people. We lie awake in bed on weekend nights wondering how our sons and daughters are when they are out for the night, perhaps in town. We know the likelihood is alcohol will be involved, whether on their part or on the part of their friends, and we are worried about the real dangers where large amounts of alcohol are involved.

As public representatives we are familiar with the scale of the problem. I have no doubt through our earlier discussions and from the extensive nature of the work done by the committee that committee members share our concern about this issue and are determined to address it in a comprehensive way. The Department of Health intends to take very early action on this issue. The evidence exists and Dr. Holohan will speak to the committee about it. It is very sobering evidence and we have reached the point where we need to take action.

The public also has a strong view that we can no longer tolerate the damage being done by alcohol to society. It exacts at huge cost in economic terms, estimated to be approximately €3.7 billion through the health burden, the cost of alcohol-related crime, the cost of absenteeism from work and the loss of productivity. The human cost is even greater in terms of family breakdown. Alcohol is implicated in many social ills such as domestic abuse, rape and child abuse. Alcohol is a factor with regard to the behaviour of the parents of a significant number of children who are taken into care. Alcohol is also a significant factor in mental health issues and figures indicate it is implicated in approximately 50% of suicides and self harm.

The evidence is very clear and we can no longer ignore it. There is no room for equivocation on this. The committee and the wider public share the view that we need to take action. We have a strong mandate from our electorate, and we know this because the issue arises at meetings we attend. The public wants us to take action in this area.

We will speak about the specific recommendations of the steering group’s report. One key area is supply and I share the committee’s concern about the proliferation of outlets and the need to tackle this problem. Another key area is price and we must tackle the very low cost of alcohol. Alcohol is no ordinary commodity and it cannot be treated as such. This is why we need to tackle the problem of the normalisation of alcohol in Irish society. The chief medical officer will give the committee an overview of the evidence presented to the steering group on the adverse impact of alcohol on society. It is on this basis that the recommendations have been drawn up.

I pay tribute to the excellent work of the steering group. In particular I thank our chief medical officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, and all of the members of the group who put a lot of time, effort and work into drawing up this very valuable report. I hope this report, along with the report of the committee, will form the basis of a very clear action plan which is in development in the Department of Health. That will be brought to Cabinet in the coming months in order to move forward with a public health Bill later this year which will address all the many facets of the alcohol problem.

I very much value the input of public representatives, particularly in this committee, given the work done in recent months. I strongly believe that public representatives are in a unique position to understand the nature of the alcohol problem in society and the various aspects of the issue. That is why I want public representatives to be very closely involved in drawing up this action plan. The approach we will take is reasonable but effective and it will not pull punches in facing up to the scale of the problem before us. We must take our courage in our hands and agree to take significant action over the coming months to address the problem

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