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Home > Joint Committee on Health and Children. General Scheme of Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015: discussion (Resumed).

[Oireachtas] Joint Committee on Health and Children. General Scheme of Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015: discussion (Resumed). (23 Apr 2015)

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I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, Dr. Tony Holohan, chief medical officer, and Ms Geraldine Luddy, principal officer at the Department of Health, to our final session of pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the public health (alcohol) Bill 2015. The committee has had a very positive engagement with a range of delegate groups, who have presented disparate views on the proposals. I thank the Minister, the chief medical officer and Ms Luddy for their ongoing assistance to the committee.  We hope our work will contribute to the development of better regulation and measures to tackle the issue of alcohol misuse and reduce alcohol consumption. I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I have received apologies from Senator Imelda Henry. I invite the Minister to make his opening remarks.

Minister for Health (Deputy Leo Varadkar):  Good morning Chairman and members of the committee. I am pleased to be here today to bring these public hearings on the general scheme of a new public health (alcohol) Bill 2015 to a close. Before I start, I would like to remind the committee that at the start of the year the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch and I set out our 25 actions for the year and grouped them around five themes. First among those themes was Healthy Ireland, followed by patient outcomes and safety, the first steps towards universal health care, investment in infrastructure and facilities, and reform.


The reason we put Healthy Ireland at the top is that we strongly believe we need to improve our health as individuals and as a nation. If we do not do that we will never get on top of chronic disease problems and illnesses that we have and will certainly never get the health budget under control in the long term. This will involve a number of different actions. The Healthy Ireland survey is now under way and we will have the first figures in the summer. This is the first study of Ireland's health since Slán in 2007. We will repeat that study every year to see if our policies are working. There will also be specific actions on obesity and an event next Monday at Farmleigh to which I hope committee members are invited. The committee members will be familiar with the actions taken on tobacco already. There will also be a new sexual health strategy before the end of the year along with the national physical activity plan. Alcohol fits into all that as part of a general drive towards better public and individual health.


I commend the Chairman, Deputy Jerry Buttimer, the members of the committee, other members of the Oireachtas who participated in these hearings, and all the invited guests on the sensible and constructive approach that we have witnessed over the past few weeks. My officials and I have found the presentations and insights presented by the witnesses very useful. I am confident that these submissions and the report the committee will produce will greatly assist me and my officials in the drafting of the final legislation.

I am sure the committee members will agree that Ireland has a serious problem – we drink too much alcohol. The consumption of alcohol in Ireland increased by 192% between 1960 and 2001, from an average of 4.9 litres of pure alcohol per adult to 14.3 litres at peak. Even though this is a problem going back decades and centuries, it is much worse than it was before the 1960s. Since this peak in 2001, alcohol consumption has reduced and in 2013 alcohol consumption per adult was 10.64 litres. Ireland’s alcohol consumption remains in the top five among the EU 28 member states. The European region has the highest consumption in the world. Early statistics indicate that alcohol consumption increased in 2014 from 10.6 litres to 11 litres per person, which is worrying as it suggests that a feature of the recovering economy is going to be an increase in alcohol consumption as more people get back to work and have more money in their pockets. It is a certainty that alcohol consumption will continue to grow as the economy grows in the absence of any policy change and that is part of why these measures are so important.


As a country, when we drink, we tend to binge drink. I doubt many of us in this room are entirely innocent of that. It is very much part of our culture. Patterns of drinking, especially drinking to intoxication, play an important role in causing alcohol-related harm. The evidence suggests that a majority of Irish drinkers engage in excessive or problematic drinking behaviours and that Irish drinkers underestimate their alcohol intake. Ireland was second in the WHO European region in binge drinking with 39% of the population misusing alcohol in this manner at least monthly.


Our most recent national alcohol consumption survey was published by the Health Research Board last year. It found that 54% of drinkers were classified as harmful drinkers; 75% of all alcohol consumed was done as part of a binge drinking session; and Irish drinkers underestimate how much they drink by about 61%. The study also shows that more than half of adult drinkers in the population are classified as harmful drinkers, and this figure does not include 20.6% of the population who abstain. When the proportion of survey respondents who are classified as harmful drinkers is applied to the population, this equates with between 1.3 and 1.4 million harmful drinkers in the country.


Harmful drinking is more common among men than women, and most common among 18 to 24 year olds. In this category a staggering 75% drink in a harmful way. In addition, a considerable proportion of self-defined light, moderate or social drinkers drink six or more standard drinks on a typical drinking occasion. This is the equivalent of binge drinking. Even these light or social drinkers do not realise that they consume alcohol in an unhealthy manner.


The findings of this study lead to the conclusion that, among the drinking population, harmful drinking is the norm in Ireland, in particular for men and women under 35. I am aware that over the past weeks the committee has listened to numerous speakers who have presented on the kinds of damage that alcohol misuse of this magnitude does to the drinker, families, communities and society and the economy.

The general scheme of the Bill was published last February and my Department is now drafting the Bill. It is my intention to have the Bill ready before the summer recess and introduced in the Houses of the Oireachtas in autumn. This legislation is the most far-reaching proposed by any Irish Government, with alcohol being addressed for the first time as a public health measure. The significance of that might not have been fully understood by many people. This is health legislation, rather than justice or enterprise legislation, so the regulations will be signed by the Minister for Health and will come from a health point of view. The enterprise Minister would be coming from more of a consumer and competition point of view and the justice Minister from a criminal justice point of view.

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