Key Policy Initiatives to Tackle the Damaging Misuse of Alcohol in Ireland

Speaking at a Public Meeting on Alcohol Awareness, Ennis, Co. Clare
Thursday Sept. 12th 2013
I am delighted to be here this evening and I would like to thank Michael McNamara for inviting me to address the meeting, and to congratulate him for taking this initiative to encourage public debate on alcohol awareness. This meeting – which has as its purpose the mobilising of public awareness and support for the introduction of minimum unit pricing, and other measures to curtail the pervasiveness of alcohol advertising and sponsorship – is timely, given that these matters are set to be discussed again within government in the coming weeks.

Alcohol is associated with many aspects of Irish social and cultural life; it’s central to so many of our social occasions.  But we cannot deny the truth – that there is significant misuse of alcohol in Ireland, and that as a society we must be concerned about the damage of this misuse, especially amongst our younger generation.

Our difficulty with alcohol is that its consumption for social enjoyment is so often overshadowed by the harm and health problems it causes when it is misused or consumed in a harmful and hazardous way.  We are all too well aware of the damage that problem drinking can do – harming the individual him or herself – but regrettably also harming the lives of families and even a wider circle of colleagues and friends.  As a society, we have to rethink our relationship with alcohol. 

Since my Department produced the report of the National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group in February of last year we have been working to bring to Government for decision a package of measures which, taken together, will help to reduce our societal levels of alcohol consumption to an OECD average. Principally these measures will tackle major drivers of alcohol consumption namely price, access and availability, marketing and promotion.
Let me remind you of four findings reported by the Substance Misuse Steering Group last year: Alcohol

· Was responsible for at least 88 deaths every month in 2008;

· is a contributory factor in half of all suicides and in deliberate self-harm; 

· cost an estimated €3.4 billion in 2007 to the healthcare and justice system, the economy, and through alcohol-related road accidents;

· 1 in 4 deaths of young men were estimated to be due to alcohol in 2008.

This evening I’d like to focus a little on the merits of Minimum Unit Pricing. This initiative is a key part of our strategy to deal with alcohol misuse. Minimum unit pricing is a mechanism that imposes a statutory floor on price levels for alcohol products that must be legally observed by retailers.  It works by increasing the price of alcohol that is cheap relative to its strength. The objective of this measure is to reduce overall consumption by targeting risk levels of alcohol consumption, especially by those who drink in a harmful and hazardous way. It will also impact children and younger adults by discouraging them from purchasing alcohol. 

There is evidence that harmful and hazardous drinkers tend to purchase disproportionate amounts of cheap alcohol – irrespective of the income level of the drinker. Increasing the price of such cheap alcohol using minimum unit pricing should lead to a reduction in the consumption of alcohol by such harmful drinkers.

The Scottish Executive have placed Minimum Unit Pricing at the heart of their strategy Changing Scotland’s Relationship with Alcohol: A Framework for Action.

And while they have faced strenuous industry opposition, they have recently won a High Court challenge to the policy by the alcohol industry which presumably sees it as a threat to their sales and underlying profits. The High Court judge opined that it was not an aim of minimum unit pricing to eradicate alcohol consumption; nor was it an aim   to increase the cost of alcohol for all drinkers. Rather, the measures are intended to strike at alcohol misuse and overconsumption and to get people to form a “healthy and sensible relation with alcohol”.

Turning now to the measures on marketing and promotion of alcohol and sponsorship by the alcohol industry of major sporting events. Sport has always made a positive contribution to the health of our people. However, I believe that alcohol involvement with sport and the pursuit of excellent sporting performance are simply incompatible. We must aim to extract alcohol from sporting experiences.

Parents and teachers tell our children that alcohol can be dangerous and must be approached very carefully.  Yet children are constantly exposed to advertisements on television, and in cinemas, and elsewhere at all hours of the day telling them that drink is fun, is consumed by cool and good-looking young people, and is an essential part of social success. How do we expect children to receive a clear message?  

Sports coaches tell our children and teenagers that good sporting performance and good health are generally incompatible with significant alcohol consumption.

Throughout our communities there are massive billboards –  ads on bus stops, on buildings and on buses – representing booze as an experience that helps you transcend your mundane life and enter a world of beautiful people, sporting success and happiness.  Meanwhile throughout these communities there are supermarkets, off licences petrol stations and even newsagents selling ‘naggins’ of vodka for a fiver and bottles of beer for less than 50 cent.

There is a clear disconnect between what we as a society tell our young people about alcohol, and what they are actually hearing and seeing in their everyday lives.

Last year the drinks industry spent over €39m on advertising alone in the Irish market. This takes no account of their ‘below-the-line’ promotion spend or specific drink advertising/promotion by the major multiples. National sports bodies have indicated that alcohol sponsorship is valued at somewhere in the region of a further €30m. If that figure is correct, it might suggest that the Drinks Industry is allocating 40% of annual marketing and promotion budgets to sponsorship – clearly a significant instrument in their marketing strategies.

Government is considering the measures I’ve discussed here this evening and other recommendations in the Substance Misuse report launched last year. We have consulted and negotiated intensively with other Government colleagues. Of course we have to weigh up all of the different arguments before proceeding. Governments across Europe and elsewhere have already taken measures; others are considering measures that we are also addressing.  It is my earnest hope and expectation that we will reach agreement on a finalised package of measures shortly.

It is very encouraging to see so many representatives from the community and various organisations who obviously care about the dangers of alcohol misuse that we face in our modern society.  I wish you well in your endeavours to raise public awareness and, working together, we can successfully achieve our goals.