Home > Dail Eireann debate. Topic issue debate - Alcohol sales legislation.

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Topic issue debate - Alcohol sales legislation. (16 Dec 2014)

Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor: The Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, will be aware the ready availability of cheap alcohol is a serious problem in Ireland that requires urgent attention. There are 2.48 million people in Ireland who drink alcohol, 54% of whom drink harmfully and excessively according to the Health Research Board survey in 2014. In other words, 1.24 million people drink harmfully and excessively. Three people die every day due to alcohol and 2,000 hospital beds are occupied every night by people with alcohol-related illnesses. In 2010, the average Irish consumer drank 11.9 litres of pure alcohol, which is equivalent to 428 pints of lager, 125 bottles of wine or 45 bottles of vodka. I could continue with the worrying statistics but I believe the Minister gets the picture.

Moreover, due to low supermarket prices and aggressive price promotions, consumers can purchase large amounts of alcohol at ridiculously low prices. However, hundreds of deaths could be avoided each year with a minimum price for alcohol units. I urge the Minister to implement swiftly the public health (alcohol) Bill and to ensure it firmly includes a fair and feasible solution through minimum unit pricing. Unless minimum unit pricing is introduced, we will allow the serious link between cheap alcohol and anti-social behaviour to only grow worse. Our streets often are dangerous late on weekend nights because of marauding and demented youths fuelled up on cheap alcohol, which more than likely has been consumed in their own homes or the homes of their friends. As matters stand, Irish teenagers are more likely to be heavy drinkers than teenagers in any other European Union country. We are failing young people by not responding to the normalisation of alcohol misuse through the cheap and widespread availability of alcohol. Moreover, parents must wise up and take on their responsibilities as primary carers for their children and teenagers. Today, the Irish Heart Foundation launched a campaign called "Can you stay On The Dry in January?". To put it bluntly, this campaign is fighting to keep more hearts beating by asking the Irish public not to drink for one month and to avoid the temptation of cheap and readily available alcohol. When I cite the statistics in respect of binge drinkers, I do not refer to the stereotypical alcoholic but to the everyday person who does not even realise the volume of alcohol he or she drinks or the frequency at which he or she drinks. We almost boast about our identity as a nation of heavy drinkers and this is extremely worrying. Research has shown that Irish women drink significantly more than their European counterparts. Most women do not even realise that drinking three to six glasses of wine a day can increase their risk of breast cancer by 41%. There is an urgent need for a major sea-change and in how we view our national relationship with alcohol. I believe that minimum unit pricing will help discourage and deter people from buying cheap alcohol.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: I thank Deputy Mitchell O'Connor for raising this important matter and acknowledge her long-standing interest in this important social problem. Ireland has a serious problem in that we drink too much alcohol, even if consumption now is falling. Furthermore, when we drink, we tend to binge-drink. Ireland has the second-highest rate of binge-drinking in the world and this pattern of drinking causes significant harm to individuals, their families and society. I will take a moment to mention some other harms that alcohol can cause. It is linked to more than 60 different types of diseases and conditions, including cancer, as Deputy Mitchell O'Connor mentioned, physical injuries and cardiovascular disease. It is a factor in half of all suicides and deliberate self-harm and can be associated with public order offences, road traffic collisions, sexual violence and abuse.

The Health Research Board reported yesterday that alcohol was involved in one of every three poisoning deaths in Ireland in 2012 and remains a substance implicated in most poisonings. Our alcohol problem is significant and decisive and innovative action is needed to address it. In October 2013, a comprehensive and detailed package of measures was approved. The overall objective is to reduce Irish consumption of alcohol from 12 litres of pure alcohol per person per year to 9.1 litres, which is the OECD average, by 2020 and thereby to reduce harms caused by the misuse of alcohol. The key measures in the drafting of the public health (alcohol) Bill will include provisions for minimum unit pricing, restrictions on marketing and advertising, structural separation of alcohol from other products in mixed trading outlets and labelling of alcohol products among other measures.

Minimum unit pricing is a key part of the Government's strategy to deal with alcohol misuse. I believe it is the one measure that will make the most difference most quickly. Minimum unit pricing, MUP, sets a minimum unit price for alcoholic drinks below which alcohol cannot be sold. Under MUP, alcohol which is cheap relative to its strength is increased in price. MUP is able to target cheaper alcohol relative to a strength because the minimum price is determined by and is directly proportional to the amount of pure alcohol contained in the drink. It mainly is aimed at those who are higher risk, such as adolescents and people who have a harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption pattern. It therefore should have only a very marginal effect on moderate drinkers. There is strong and clear scientific evidence that an increase in alcohol prices reduces hazardous drinking and serious alcohol-related problems. My Department, in conjunction with our colleagues in the North, commissioned a health impact assessment from Sheffield University as part of the process of developing a legislative basis for minimum unit pricing. The research studied the impact of different minimum prices on a range of areas, such as health, crime and the economy. Work on developing a framework for the necessary Department of Health legislation is continuing and the heads of the Bill have just been sent to other Departments for observation. All things going to plan, I intend to publish the heads of this Bill in January 2015, allowing some time for the Oireachtas committee to consider them.

Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor: I thank the Minister and am delighted to hear he intends to publish the heads of the Bill in early January 2015. I note he spoke about the dangers of drink but if I may, I wish to bring another aspect to this issue. I ask that Members not forget the sale of cheap alcohol is contributing greatly to the decline in people shopping locally. Local retailers and publicans are struggling to compete with supermarkets, below-cost selling and massive advertising expenditure. Instead, customers are loading up on cheap alcohol in large supermarkets. As the Christmas season is under way - the Minister mentioned this - I also must highlight that almost one in three road deaths in Ireland are alcohol-related and such deaths are avoidable. In addition, it is known that excessive alcohol consumption can contribute to domestic violence and according to Women's Aid, alcohol often is a trigger or de-inhibitor and can be used as an excuse by the abuser for domestic violence. If this culture of harmful binge-drinking is to be tackled effectively, the key areas of alcohol pricing, marketing and availability must be tackled, beginning, as the Minister has just announced, with the swift of implementation of the public health (alcohol) Bill.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: While one spends a lot of time in this Chamber disagreeing with people, I could not agree more with Deputy Mitchell O'Connor. There is absolutely no doubt but that alcohol is a contributory factor in domestic violence, as well as an excuse for it on some occasions, which is unacceptable. In my previous position as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, much work was put into road safety and even though there has been an increase in the number of deaths on the roads over the past year or two, it has come down from a very high level of more than 600 per annum to approximately 200 per annum at present. This really demonstrates that interventions do work and among those interventions was mandatory alcohol testing, which made a big difference.

On the issue of the shops, I take the Deputy's point. I have no doubt but that large supermarkets and multiples use cheap alcohol as a footfall generator to get more business into their shops and that this probably does have a detrimental impact on smaller stores on main streets. Obviously, however, my responsibility in bringing forward this Bill as Minister for Health is on public health grounds and on those grounds alone.

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