The Power of Local Community in Reducing Harmful Drinking

Speech delivered at the opening of Alcohol Forum Conference

I don’t need to tell the people here about the damage that problem drinking can do.  It does not only harm the individual drinker, but also harms the lives of those close to them – their partners, their children and their friends. 


It is right that so much emphasis is placed on individual responsibility. 

But Alcohol Forum exists because individual responsibility alone often is not enough. You mobilise communities, bringing together parents, youth groups, community groups, sports clubs, schools, health services, businesses and law enforcement to pool their resources and deal with alcohol related harm.


A line that resonated with me from your own published material is that “measures that influence the environment are more effective than targeting the individual drinker”.  This is not to absolve anyone of individual responsibility to deal with their problem behaviour, but it is to say that we deal with problems more effectively when we work together than when we work alone.


The problem is just too big and too entrenched to be dealt with effectively on an individual level, or even on a community level. Let me give some examples of what I mean.


-      Schools and parents tell our children that alcohol can be dangerous and must be approached very carefully.  At the same time these children are seeing 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 hear a clear message? 


-      Sports clubs to tell our children and teenagers that good sporting performance and good health are generally incompatible with significant alcohol consumption.  At the same time their sporting heroes are kitted out in branded gear, and the stadiums where they play or the backdrops against which they are interviewed are emblazoned with the branding of alcoholic drinks.  Again, how do we expect people to hear a clear message?


-      Many elements of vibrant healthy communities are here today and they all do their best to protect their communities from the ill effects of alcohol.  At the same time, throughout those 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 around a fiver and bottles of beer for less than 50 cent.

So there is a clear disconnect between what we as a society want to say to young people about alcohol, and what they are actually hearing.  Young people crave acceptance.  And they are being bombarded with messages telling them that they will gain acceptance through alcohol.


This is where Governments clearly have a role: to act in support of the individuals, and in support of the communities that are working to deal with the alcohol problem.


Every time governments decide to consider some form of regulation in order to address this problem, there are voices that say “that won’t work”.   We are told we should not consider restricting the sponsorship of sporting events because such sponsorship doesn’t increase consumption;  we shouldn’t bring in minimum prices, because this will only lead to cross border-shopping;  there are arguments made against clear health labelling of alcoholic drink;  against restricting advertising; indeed against just about every measure.


But despite all of this, the Government has been considering precisely these kinds of measures and will announce its conclusions and decisions shortly. And of course, we have to weigh up all of the different arguments before deciding how to proceed.  In this we are not alone.  Governments across Europe and elsewhere are looking at ways to tackle the alcohol problem.  Some have already taken measures. Others are considering measures that we are also addressing.


I cannot today give you final details, or the precise contents of our action plan but let me make one thing clear:  We won’t be deferring our decision, commissioning more research, or deciding to wait and see how other countries get along.  The National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group report was published last February. It provides us with a very robust analysis of the problem, and it also makes recommendations based on a thorough review of the national and international evidence. 


We have a good track record as leaders, not followers, when it comes to introducing measures to protect our health and our environment. We led within Europe on banning smoking in workplaces, and others have followed our lead in large numbers.  We took the lead again in taxing plastic bags, with excellent socially beneficial results.


Those who resist strong measures do make one valid point:  It is difficult to take measures in a single small country if they are not also taken in other countries too.   It is possible, for example, that minimum pricing in one country could lead people to buy their alcoholic drinks in another country.  That is why, in addition to our own national initiatives, we are working with other countries who have the same public policy objectives that we have.  For example in conjunction with Northern Ireland, a health impact assessment is being commissioned to study the impact of different minimum unit prices on a range of areas such as health, crime and likely economic impact.


We will watch what other countries do and learn from them.  But we will also take a lead, and allow other countries to learn from us. Yes, whatever we introduce will be a work in progress; it will not be the last word. And there will be voices arguing against some of what we are doing.  But we will not wait.  This generation of children will not wait.  You who work so hard in your communities to get across the correct message about alcohol in the face of very powerful alternative messages cannot wait.


I applaud and salute the work you all do, and I hope that the steps shortly to be announced by government will make your job easier, and create a more appropriate environment in which to bring up our teenagers and children.


There are many elements to the Substance Misuse Report’s recommendations – all of which are evidence based.  Those relating to minimum pricing, availability of alcohol, forecourt selling, how shops are laid out and such-like are aspects that have been discussed in the public arena over recent months. 


Less discussed perhaps has been the need to mobilise communities.  Mobilisation in this context needs to take place at both a national level and local level.  The Alcohol Forum has been active on both fronts, for instance at a national level along with others in promoting a ‘COALITION’ – ‘Ireland Against Harmful Drinking’. But at today’s conference  the emphasis is more on mobilising communities at a local level.


Alcohol Action Ireland have been very active over the years in guiding and advising policy and in creating public awareness. Their perspective on this theme will be of keen interest to us.

I am aware that the Alcohol Forum plans to take what they have learned and cause it to be exploited and followed in other parts of the country.  They intend working with other existing organisations that already have a strong presence in their local communities – in particular strong links are being forged with the network of Family Resource Centres. I compliment the Family Resource Centres for their ready receptiveness to this initiative.