As human beings, with our species still evolving, today we know more than ever before about what impacts our development and behaviours i.e. what we should be doing as parents, and the food and drink we need to consume in order to protect our bodies and our health.
Our knowledge is growing yet we continue to make mistakes and ignore informative data and evidence–based research about the harms caused by alcohol.
I want this gathering to focus on two matters when deliberating over the course of the next few days.
Firstly, I want you to put children at the centre of all public health policies devised to counter the harm caused by alcohol. This involves taking into account how alcohol can impact the child in the womb, thereafter the environmental exposure of the child to alcohol products including their marketing, his/her early initiation into consuming alcohol, and the harm to the child caused by growing up in a home with parental alcohol misuse (PAM).
In Alcohol Action Ireland we are committed to securing for children a “childhood free from alcohol harm”. This is the right of every child.
I am a founding member of Silent Voices, an initiative of Alcohol Action Ireland. Silent Voices seeks to raise awareness and ensure early intervention supports for children who are growing up with parental alcohol misuse and supports for adult children who have endured this lived experience. Alcohol misuse by parents impacts the child’s development psychologically, emotionally and often physically. The child must learn to cope with the unpredictable and confusing behaviours of the problem drinker. This is traumatic for the child. The coping skills learnt may not assist when he/she becomes an adult. Growing up in such a home is recognised internationally (for over 20 years) as an adverse childhood experience. The trauma inflicted on the child has consequences which can last into adulthood, even a lifetime. The child is a powerless, silent victim, with no voice, no language and is often afraid to speak out in case they or their family will get into trouble.
How is this to be achieved?
Governments, with your guidance, must develop appropriate policies and plans for early trauma-informed interventions and supports for the child, invest in primary care psychology services to meet the child’s needs and develop national campaigns to raise awareness about the impact of parental alcohol misuse. All parents generally want what is best for their child; but many may not realise the impact of their actions. We have begun to recognise in Ireland that growing up in a home with parental alcohol misuse is a hidden harm, leading to poor developmental outcomes and maltreatment and that children must be supported. But, apart from a Practice Guide, giving telephone numbers, contact details and e-learning for certain professional sectors, it is insufficient for the 200,000 or more children currently living with this experience. Indeed, many of these children are not on anyone’s radar. They are falling through the cracks. Providing trauma-informed early interventions and supports for children, properly funded and resourced, remain a distant dream.
Secondly, I want you to look at the whole area of harm caused by alcohol and the measures needed to protect children. Protecting children from alcohol harm is not only a public health issue. It is a human rights’ one. Harm is not confined to growing up with parental alcohol misuse, which is by and large hidden posing its own set of problems. What of the child’s early exposure to alcohol promotion? Alcohol products are currently as familiar to the child as chocolate and haribo sweets. Unlike sweets however, alcohol is a legally and socially accepted drug which can alter mood and behaviour causing harm. It is marketed everywhere online and off. There is a need, as never before, for an international convention/ framework specifically on alcohol marketing and promotion that will protect children.
The 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1995 WHO European Charter on Alcohol are key sources. The latter document states that all children have the right to grow up in an environment protected from the negative consequences of alcohol consumption. This must include marketing and promotion of alcohol products.
So, what do we want?
More than anything we want and need leadership – cohesion amongst policymakers and bold political leadership.
In Ireland, over the last decade or so, we have greatly benefitted from both. At the helm of our policy making we have been fortunate to have the consistent voice of the Chief Medical Officer while across two consecutive administrations both the current, and previous, Ministers of Health have courageously stood firm to enact a legislative framework for alcohol control that has public health objectives and child protection at its heart.
However, despite the passing of the historic Public Health Alcohol Act in October 2018 there has been very slow progress on the application of the controls enacted. The crucial measures like Minimum unit pricing (MUP), Content of Advertising, health warning labelling, etc., have yet to be implemented.
Alcohol consumption remains stubbornly high and alcohol related harm continues to cost our Exchequer close to €3bn annually. This level of harmful consumption continues to have devastating consequences for us as a society. Our health service is struggling to meet avoidable demand. And we are putting the health, welfare and life outcomes of our children – our next generations and future, at risk.
Prevention strategies to counter the harm caused to children by both parental alcohol misuse and early exposure to alcohol products are essential.
The message from this Conference must be that a legally binding instrument to effectively regulate alcohol marketing to children including alcohol product sponsorship of culture and sport, must be at the heart of any future action plan.
In this respect, the recent Report from the WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission ‘A future for the world’s children?’, and led by former NZ prime minister, Helen Clark, highlights the absolute inadequacies of voluntary commercial codes and the need for specific regulation on commercial marketing to children. The Report’s proposal – to add an Optional Protocol regarding commercial marketing and targeting of children to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is well worth exploring.
During the recent live Six Nations rugby match between Scotland and England, according to research just announced by Alcohol Focus Scotland, there was an alcohol reference every 15 seconds. Children, especially adolescents, watch these matches. How is the child to be protected here? Is this not compelling evidence to prohibit alcohol’s sponsorship of sport?
Every day that a child can be delayed from commencing life–long drinking of alcohol is an advance on public health. Lives must matter. Children’s lives are our future. To adapt what Greta Thunberg said on a climate march in Stockholm in 2018 and reverse it – their lives are in our hands.
It is incumbent on us to advocate for the necessary steps to protect our children and to slow their recruitment to alcohol. The focus on children, supported by an international convention/legal framework will ensure progress just as it did with tobacco. International collaboration is essential to stop the harm caused by alcohol.