Minister White speaking at the opening of Alcohol Action Ireland National Conference

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Speech by Minister of State at the Department of Health Alex White opening of Alcohol Action Ireland National Conference “Time Please  … For Change”

Minister Alex White speaking at the Alcohol Action Ireland national conference "Time PLease... For Change" last Thursday
Minister Alex White speaking at the Alcohol Action Ireland national conference "Time Please... For Change" last Thursday
I would like to thank Fiona Ryan for inviting me to open this conference, and to take the opportunity to thank Alcohol Action Ireland for the work they do in raising public awareness of the harms caused by alcohol.
Alcohol is associated with, and embedded in many ritual aspects of Irish social and cultural life.   It ’s a significant element in our tradition of sociability, conviviality and recreation. But we cannot deny the truth about the misuse of alcohol in Ireland: that its consumption for pleasure and hospitality  – along with its economic benefits  – is overshadowed by the harm and health problems caused when it is misused or consumed in a harmful manner way.   And that ’s why it ’s time for change!   That ’s what this conference is about  – change; because our society has got to rethink our relationship with alcohol.
Let ’s look at the wall of harm that alcohol causes.   The National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group reported that 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; that alcohol was a contributory factor in the suicides of 245 people in 2010 and was a factor in 4,764 episodes of deliberate self-harm in 2011;
  •  €3.4 billion in 2007 was the total estimated cost of alcohol misuse to the healthcare and justice system, the economy, and as a result of alcohol-related road accidents.
  • 1 in 4 deaths of young men was estimated to be due to alcohol in 2008;
  • alcohol is associated with 2000 beds being occupied every night in Irish acute hospitals;
  • increases the risk of more than 60 medical conditions  – such as cancers;
  • increases the risk of children needing special care with the World Health Organisation estimating that adult alcohol problems are associated with 16% of child abuse cases;
  • was a trigger in a third of domestic abuse cases in 2005;
  • is associated with harms to the baby because of mothers drinking during pregnancy  – a range of disorders known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders are caused by mothers drinking alcohol in pregnancy and is a factor in unplanned pregnancies.
We have to reduce the overall level of alcohol consumed in our society and tackle the problems of alcohol misuse.   As you are aware, the report of the National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group was published last February.   The Steering Group ’s objective was to set out an evidence-based framework which identifies effective policies and actions to tackle the harm caused to individuals and society by alcohol use and misuse.
The report made an impressive number of recommendations ranging across the supply, pricing, availability and marketing of alcohol; along with proposing policy measures dealing with prevention strategies, treatment, rehabilitation, alcohol and substance dependency research and information.
Some of the key recommendations of the Report are to:
  • increase the price of alcohol so that it becomes less affordable;
  • introduce a legislative basis for minimum pricing, along with a  ‘social responsibility ’ levy on the drinks industry;
  • commence Section 9 (structural separation of alcohol from other products in supermarkets, etc) of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008;
  • introduce legislation and statutory codes to provide for: a 9.00 p.m. watershed for alcohol advertising on television and radio; alcohol advertising in cinemas to   be permitted
  • only with films classified as suitable for over-18s;   prohibition of all outdoor advertising of alcohol; and all alcohol advertising in the print media to be subject to stringent codes, enshrined in legislation and independently monitored;
  • the report recommends the phasing out of drinks industry sponsorship of sport and other large public events by 2016;
  • the development of a system to monitor the enforcement of the provisions of intoxicating liquor legislation;
  • that a Clinical Directorate be set up to develop the clinical and organisational governance framework for   treatment and rehabilitation services;
  • and finally that early intervention guidelines be developed for alcohol and substance use across all relevant sectors of the health and social care system.   This will include a national screening and brief intervention protocol for early identification of problem alcohol use.
You can see that these recommendations apply across a number of different sectors, touching on a range of different interests in Irish society and in the broader economy. While many of the recommendations are challenging, these are the kind of actions and interventions that are required if we are serious about tackling the harms of alcohol in our society.
The extent of alcohol misuse warrants policies that can address this pervasive threat to Irish public health; and one such policy recommended by the Steering Group is a regime of minimum pricing.   This is ultimately a mechanism of imposing a statutory floor in price levels for alcohol products that must be legally observed by retailers.   The primary function of this measure is to reduce at risk levels of alcohol consumption, especially by those who drink in a harmful and hazardous way; and it would also have a greater impact on discouraging children to drink.   In turn, this should then diminish the effect that the misuse of alcohol and over-consumption would have on public services, crimes, public health  – along of course with productivity in the economy.   I look forward to hearing about the contributions to be made later by Dr John Holmes and Dr Evelyn Gillan on the challenges of introducing minimum pricing in Scotland.
Strong and effective action on alcohol can produce greatly improved population health and well-being, enhanced employment and productivity, increased health and social welfare savings, greater health and economic equality and greater social cohesion and inclusion. This is the reason why alcohol is regarded as one of the world ’s top priority public health challenges.   We have a strong public health dimension to our work in dealing with alcohol misuse.   Our agenda is to protect and improve the health of the Irish people.   I understand that effective measures on alcohol control will be part of the discussion for the afternoon.
The Strategy offers real direction and leadership for our policy approach on the use and misuse of alcohol.   There are challenges associated with some of these recommendations; this is inevitable. But I want to make it clear that my Department is actively preparing a concrete set of proposals on the basis of the National Substance Misuse Strategy report. A very considerable amount of progress has already been achieved in this regard, and the intention is to submit proposals to Government for consideration and approval as soon as possible. While I cannot be definitive about a date, I would hope that this can be done with a period of weeks.
Meanwhile, I have no doubt that your deliberations here today will be of enormous assistance, and I wish you well for a successful conference.
From the Department of Health’s “HealthUpdate