independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

Just how widespread and pervasive is alcohol in children’s lives?

Over the past number of months, Alcohol Action Ireland (AAI) has contributed to a range of consultations[1], media articles[2], research initiatives[3] and other advocacy efforts in relation to children and the harm that alcohol causes in their lives.[4]

This awareness raising and advocacy is part of AAI’s work to advance its strategic goal of a childhood free from alcohol-harm.[5]

As we carry out this work, it becomes increasingly apparent just how widespread and pervasive alcohol is in children’s lives, how it seeps into their world, bringing a tsunami of harm that’s often ignored or brushed away as somehow unavoidable.

Consider these depressing facts and statistics:

  • Pre-natal exposure to alcohol can leave children compromised from a neurobiological perspective, resulting in problems carried with them throughout their lives. Ireland is estimated to have the third highest prevalence of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) in the world.[6]
  • In Ireland, at least 1 in 6 young people are impacted by parental alcohol misuse, an adverse childhood experience that can have lasting impacts into adulthood.
  • Every year in Ireland, 60,000 children in Ireland start drinking. Starting to drink alcohol as a child, which is the norm rather than the exception in Ireland, is more likely to lead to heavy episodic drinking and is a known risk factor for later dependency.
  • Irish people aged 18 to 24 have the highest rates of binge drinking in the European Union,[7] a trajectory that begins, of course, in teenage years.

Further data tells us that drug and alcohol abuse features in 1 in 5 of child care cases that come to court, while alcohol was identified as a risk factor in three quarters of Irish teenagers for whom social workers applied for admission to special care – a secure care environment requiring a court order to detain a young person to protect them.[8]

Alcohol misuse in the home was named as a key child welfare issue in the Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group as it was an issue in one third of the cases of unnatural deaths reviewed. In the same report, alcohol was found to be the second most prevalent issue after neglect and twice as prevalent as drugs in the home.[9]  It was also a key prominent feature of a report by Dr Geoffrey Shannon regarding Garda powers to take young people into care in emergency situations.[10] When it comes to young people and offending, we know that in Ireland, alcohol is a factor in approximately half of all youth offending.[11] Furthermore, 85% of Garda Youth Diversion Programmes named alcohol-related crime as first on the list of offences committed in their area. Public order, criminal damage, and to a lesser degree minor assault and trespass were the main offences committed when drinking.[12]

The loss of potential contained in any one of these statistics is devastating, but taken cumulatively, it is nothing short of an abject failure, a wilful blindness that allows preventable situations to carry on regardless.

The evidence is clear: Ireland is complacent and young lives are ruined. This complacency becomes ever more evident every day, week, month, that goes by where laws that could make a difference in fighting alcohol harm remain unimplemented.

The Public Health Alcohol Act[13] includes a range of measures such as the introduction of MUP (clear evidence from other jurisdictions shows that it works); restrictions on advertising; labelling of alcohol (this would inform alcohol users, including those who are pregnant, of risks of drinking).

None of these reforms, though law, have yet been implemented, nor have we any timeline as to when they might be.

As well as being social justice and public health concerns, curbing alcohol harm is a children’s rights issue.

Every child has a right to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and to an adequate standard of living for physical, mental and social development.  Children have the right to be protected from harm, to develop fully and to participate in decisions which affect their wellbeing.[14]

These rights infer that every child has the right to a childhood free from alcohol harm, or as stated by the World Health Organisation: all children and adolescents have the right to grow up in an environment protected from the negative consequences of alcohol consumption and from the promotion of alcoholic beverages.[15] Research now clearly shows that exposure to advertising is associated with greater consumption.  Young people who have greater exposure to alcohol marketing are more likely subsequently to initiate alcohol use and engage in binge and hazardous drinking.[16]

In recent weeks, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly sent a strong message to junk food companies saying: “Parents are having to deal with a very sophisticated, multibillion-euro industry, which is identifying triggers in parents and in children to get them to buy…”

Alcohol, like junk food, causes preventable harm and the consequences of excess alcohol in young lives is far greater than excess junk food. Young people are daily highly exposed to alcohol marketing which encourages, normalises and glamorises alcohol consumption. This is because of the ‘alcogenic’ society that has become the norm in Ireland,[17] and indeed the corresponding alcogenic digital landscape that young people have access to 24/7.[18]

There’s no doubt that some of the issues raised here are entrenched and difficult to solve, but it’s also true that all of them could be somewhat alleviated by the implementation of laws already on our statute books.

Why are these laws not being implemented? Who benefits? Certainly not our children.

 

[1]/wpfb-file/alcohol-action-ireland-review-of-the-child-care-act-pdf/

/download/publications/AAI-Youth-Justice-Consultation-2.pdf

[2] /silent-voices/operation-encompass/; https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/calls-for-gardai-to-warn-school-if-child-sees-domestic-abuse-39599720.html

[3] /wpfb-file/annotated-fyp20final2028129-docx-pdf/

[4] Aai | Mhi – Call For Investment In Trauma-Informed Services To Support Covid-19 Recovery

/download/publications/Trauma-informed-care-position-paper.pdf

AAI contributed to the Children’s Rights Alliance submission to the UNCRC reporting process. https://www.childrensrights.ie/sites/default/files/submissions_reports/files/Children%27s%20Rights%20Alliance%20Ireland%20-%20Submission%20on%20the%20List%20of%20Issues%20Prior%20to%20Reporting%202020.pdf

[5]/download/publications/21155_AAI_Strategic_Plan_v6_web%25E2%2580%25A2.pdf

[6] Global Prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Among Children and Youth A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, available at: /download/publications/jamapediatrics_Lange_2017_oi_170049.pdf

[7] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/young-irish-topped-eu-binge-drinking-table-1.3260529

[8] https://www.childlawproject.ie/interim-reports/.

[9] Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group.

[10] Audit of the exercise by An Garda Síochána of the provisions of Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991.

[11] Irish Youth Justice Service (2009) Designing Effective Local Responses to Youth Crime.

[12] Irish Youth Justice Service (2009) Designing Effective Local Responses to Youth Crime.

[13] /campaigns/bill/

[14]See UN convention on the rights of the child:https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx

[15] Framework for alcohol policy in the WHO European Region, http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/79396/E88335.pdf

[16] Alcohol marketing and youth alcohol consumption: a systematic review of longitudinal studies published since 2008

https://doi.org/10.1111/add.13591

[17] Everything is telling you to drink”: understanding the functional significance of alcogenic environments for young adult drinkers, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/16066359.2017.1395022.

[18] /policy/marketing-alcohol-children-under-the-influence/