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Home > Seanad Eireann debate. Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015: Committee Stage (Resumed).

[Oireachtas] Seanad Eireann debate. Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015: Committee Stage (Resumed). (08 Nov 2017)

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…An Cathaoirleach: We are resuming the debate on amendment No. 10 to section 4. Amendments Nos. 50 to 52, inclusive, are related to amendment No. 10 and the House has agreed to discuss them together. When the debate adjourned on the previous day, the Minister was in possession and I will call on him to resume his speech. Before I do, I would like Members to bear in mind that I do not wish, as Cathaoirleach, to have any Second Stage speeches. People can contribute obviously, but we have had Second Stage and we are well into Committee Stage. I will remind Members not to embark on Second Stage speeches on the general issue but to stick to the amendments before us.


Minister for Health (Deputy Simon Harris): I am delighted to be back here in what seems to be a much bigger Seanad Chamber for the resumption of this very important Bill. It is landmark legislation and the first time ever as a country that we will introduce public health legislation on alcohol. I certainly do not intend to treat Committee Stage like Second Stage but, by way of a few introductory remarks, it is important to say that with this Bill we are, for the first time, taking the important step of addressing alcohol as a public health matter. The clear intention of the Bill is to contribute to the reduction of the harmful use of alcohol in our country.


We have all been, or have known someone who has been, affected negatively by the misuse of alcohol. Examining our own relationship with alcohol and addressing the damage it can cause will never be popular, nor will it necessarily be comfortable. Alcohol is an intrinsic part of our culture, and perhaps even of our identity, and to address the harms it can cause when it is misused requires courage and honesty. I am confident the nature of the debate we will have here today will be very helpful in progressing this key legislation. We hear Irish people drink moderately, but in 2017 the Healthy Ireland survey found that almost four out of ten of us binge drink regularly. The Central Statistics Office recently published figures which showed Ireland as top in the EU for binge drinking in 2014. Binge drinking involves drinking six or more standard drinks at one time.  The more we drink, the higher our risk of developing life-changing illnesses such as alcoholic liver diseases or alcohol-related cancers. We can no longer ignore the evidence or the risks.


One of the objectives of this Bill is to address the relationship between children and alcohol. It is worth noting the recent comments by our special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, in his report earlier this year on the exercise of Garda powers under the Child Care Act, who stated "the failure by society to address alcohol as a fundamental problem, places insurmountable burdens on the child protection system". This Bill on its own is not the answer to this pressing issue but it is an important contribution along with others identified in the national substance misuse strategy on prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, which the Taoiseach and I launched a couple of weeks ago. The Bill aims to reduce harmful drinking by adults and therefore of children's experience of those harms but also to delay the age at which children themselves start to drink.


There is a strong link between alcohol, self-harm and suicide among our teenagers. In the "Irish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Study", which was published in 2014, one fifth of Irish children reported that they had an alcoholic drink in the last 30 days and one in ten children reported having been drunk in the last 30 days. In the most recent European school survey project on alcohol and other drugs, seven out of ten Irish 15-to-16 year olds had already drunk alcohol and more than three out of ten had been drunk in the past. The same survey found that a quarter of Irish girls and nearly a fifth of Irish boys reported having been injured or involved in an accident due to alcohol. These are frightening numbers. While I have no doubt that the statistics on the relationship between children and alcohol may change from year to year, is it not time to say that no such relationship should exist and that our children should not be consuming any alcohol? I believe that it is. It is our responsibility as law makers to take what steps we can to reach that goal and to change the culture.


Research studies show consistently that exposure to alcohol advertising is associated with an increased likelihood that children will start to drink or will drink greater quantities if they already do. The Bill sets out measures to create an environment where our children are not exposed to alcohol products or advertising on a daily basis and where alcohol consumption is not considered to be an automatic rite of passage for every teenager. Our objective is to ensure that taking a drink is something that can be enjoyed by an informed adult who knows the risk of misuse. Are we being a nanny state? I have heard a great deal about this in recent weeks, but I do not believe so. It is an intentional distraction from the purpose of the Bill. Protecting the health and welfare of our children is a duty of the State. We need to acknowledge and address the harms associated with the misuse of alcohol. Deputy Micheál Martin was accused of introducing a nanny state when he implemented courageous measures on tobacco as a result of which people have lived who would otherwise have been dead. If this were a discussion on legislating to control the exposure of children to other substances with an equal potential for harm, I doubt the nanny-state accusation would be made.


What about adults? Some would argue that we should leave it to the individual to decide on their own drinking. Certainly, I agree that we must all take personal responsibility for our actions. However, when the decisions of the individual impact negatively and substantially on all of us as a society, including on our health services and on our social services, we cannot abdicate our responsibility to protect our citizens and those public services. The cost of time spent in hospital for alcohol-related conditions in 2012 was €1.5 billion, or the equivalent of €1 for every €10 spent on public health. Many Members bring me to the House on important Commencement matters seeking more investment in the public health service. I ask them to think about what we could do with €1.5 billion of additional investment in waiting-list initiatives. In 2013, alcohol-related discharges accounted for more than 160,000 bed days in public hospitals; that is almost 3.6% of all bed days each year being used up in relation to this.


This Bill contains a suite of measures but they are not designed to change a culture overnight, which is impossible. Their aim is to raise awareness among all of us about the risks associated with the misuse of alcohol and to implement practical changes to protect our children and all of our citizens. During consideration of the Bill last October, the potential cost burden on smaller mixed trading outlets of the proposals around separating alcohol from other products was discussed at great length in the Seanad. I listened carefully to the debate and have read back over the transcripts of it. I heard the concerns and I have tried to act on them. When we come to consider the relevant section of the Bill, the House will see that I am bringing forward an amendment to provide an alternative for smaller retailers, which is a genuine effort to meet the concerns that were raised. However, I do not wish to divide the Seanad on this issue today. If what I have heard from all Members is absolutely the case, I believe we can all get to a point on which we can agree. Let me be clear, however, that my bottom line on this is that I want to see alcohol made less visible in our shops.


It is not the same as buying a loaf of bread or a litre of milk and it cannot be treated as such. There is significant misinformation and misunderstanding, however. I commit to the Seanad today that I will engage with small shops and their representatives to provide clarity on the flexible options available to meet the requirements of this legislation. However, I do not want today's discussion to focus solely on that one aspect of the Bill. There are many important aspects of the Bill, of which visibility is but one. The Government has a bottom line on visibility but I want to have the engagement on it.   We need to pass all sections of the Bill on Committee Stage today, if possible but at least by tomorrow, and engage further on this point on Report Stage. This legislation has been stalled for too long and we need to make progress today. I am, as I know we all are, committed to tackling the alcohol problem in Ireland and to reducing the widespread harm and pain it causes both to those who engage in harmful drinking and to all others that are affected. We have the opportunity today to take the first important steps to create a healthier society for our children, our vulnerable people and all of our citizens. In that spirit, I now look forward to engaging and co-operating with the House to bring the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 through Seanad Éireann, to teasing out legitimate issues of concern and, ultimately, to enacting a really important piece of landmark legislation.………


[For more of the debate, click on this link]

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