Alcohol Debate

First of all, I would like to welcome this debate. I feel it often comes up in a fragmented format where sometimes a more holistic, cohesive approach can be absent.

When we think of alcohol consumption in Ireland, we think of it in the context of a number of debates which happen annually: overconsumption on certain public holidays; the interaction between alcohol companies and responsible drinking campaigns; sponsorship of both the arts and sport by alcohol companies; minimum pricing of alcohol; changes to how alcohol is labelled; alcohol and public health; creating a physical separation between alcohol and other goods in supermarkets – the list goes on and on, and often these debates are treating in isolation.

However, I believe there is real value to discussing ‘alcohol consumption in Ireland’, and highlighting a number of these things under that broad setting and what we as policy makers can do to discourage excess consumption.
As the Minister said, Ireland came in second in the WHO European region in relation to binge drinking – with 39% of the population misusing alcohol in this manner monthly. Moreover, the Health Research’s Board Alcohol Diary Survey found that more than half of all adult drinkers in the population are harmful drinkers. Over 150,000 people are dependent drinkers whilst more than 1.35 million are drinking in a harmful manner – an increasingly number of them, women.

According to experts at a recent Alcohol Action Ireland conference I attended – women are now partaking in binge drinking in disproportionately large numbers. In fact, Irish women are drinking at least twice what they did in the 1960s. Alcohol consumption amongst men is flat-lining whilst women’s consumption is soaring.

Alcohol Action Ireland also calculated that alcohol-related harm costs the State an estimated €3.7 billion annually, with €2.4 billion of that figure accounted for by health and crime-related costs alone. This is an alarming figure, and is a large percentage of our GDP. It’s clear that we need to frame any debate on alcohol policy in Ireland in this context.

In the context of this, the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 is to be most welcomed. One of the more talked about aspects of the Bill is to introduce minimum alcohol pricing, which the Government had long ago committed itself to doing. As we know, this is a targeted measure, designed to stop strong alcohol being sold at very low prices in the off-trade, particularly supermarkets, where alcohol is frequently used as a “loss leader” and sold below cost.

What I have consistently said on this issue, to my colleagues in both Fine Gael and Labour, is that this Government must keep the pressure on these measures and continue to push ahead with this alcohol legislation, as it is both long overdue and urgently needed.

I am proud of the commitment we have made with regard to the minimum pricing of alcohol, and one aspect which has been overlooked is the co-operative aspect with Northern Ireland. The Minister said there was an agreement with Northern Ireland that similar measures would be introduced at the same time so that a cross-Border trade in cheap alcohol would not develop. This vital part has been overlooked in much of the commentary on the issue, and I believe it’s an important element of what is a well thought out piece of this strategy.

Minimum pricing is able to target this cheaper alcohol relative to its strength because the price is determined by and directly proportionate to the amount of alcohol in the product.

This is important as these strong and cheap drinks are the alcohol products favoured by two at-risk groups: the heaviest drinkers among us, who generally seek to get as much alcohol as they can for as little money as they can and are most at risk of alcohol-related illnesses and death; and our young people, who generally have the least disposable income, are very price sensitive and have the highest prevalence of binge drinking, as well as a greater risk from alcohol harm as their bodies and brains are still developing.

Other elements of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill in provisions to prevent the sale of very cheap alcohol; health labelling and warnings, including calorie counts; powers for environmental health officers to enforce the separation of alcohol within stores and to police minimum unit pricing; legal regulation of sports sponsorship; and restrictions on the advertising and marketing of alcohol, including a broadcast watershed. It will also be illegal to market alcohol in a manner that is appealing to children. I have, at one stage or another, called in this Chamber for every single one of these things to be implemented and I am glad to see the Government taking action.

However, a crucial issue that was recently brought to my attention and one that has not been widely discussed is that of unregulated digital marketing of alcohol. According to Doctor Pat Kenny, a lecturer in DIT – this form of marketing is going completely under the radar. Diageo has allocated 21% of its marketing budget to digital marketing. In effect, young people are being recruited to market alcohol to their peers via social media
Interesting, Finland have just introduced a ban on digital alcohol marketing to add to their existing regulations. It will involve the prohibition of alcohol advertising campaigns in which consumers are asked to participate in games, lotteries or contests. This measure will also include alcohol advertising on social media-type posts, photos and video clips.

On a more general advertising note, France currently have ban on the ‘Lifestyle Marketing’ of products on TV. For example, they can show the bottle of wine – but not people drinking it and having a good time. Introducing such measures here should be now given serious consideration.

Given the challenges we face, I believe serious action is needed across the board and the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is certainly one large component in this – however we also need to be looking to further measures, as the cost to individuals and to the wellbeing of the nation is, I believe, far more than many understand it to be.

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