Speech by Minister Varadkar – 3rd Alcohol Forum National Alcohol Conference

Minister Varadkar speaking at the 3rd Alcohol Forum National Alcohol Conference

Minister Varadkar speaking at the 3rd Alcohol Forum National Alcohol Conference

3rd Alcohol Forum National Alcohol Conference
“The Best Available Evidence – Supporting the Implementation of Local Solutions to Reduce Alcohol Consumption and Alcohol Harm”

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I want to thank Pat Harvey and Kieran Doherty for inviting me to formally launch this conference.  It’s great to have this opportunity, because reducing alcohol misuse is one of my top public health priorities.

The theme of this year’s conference is particularly relevant: “The Best Available Evidence – Supporting the Implementation of Local Solutions to Reduce Alcohol Consumption and Alcohol Harm”.

My own view is that we need to work with the communities in order to stimulate discussion, and support initiatives, that make a difference at local level.  The Alcohol Forum’s work in raising awareness of the damage caused by alcohol abuse is vital in changing our attitudes to alcohol and reducing our levels of harmful drinking. I will speak a bit more about that in a few minutes.

You have some notable speakers today: Dr Thomas Babor, Professor David Jernigan, Dr Ann Hope, Dr Stephan Stewart, Ms Evelyn Smith and the young award winners Eimear Murphy and Mr Ian O’Sullivan.
Your work is crucial, because it considers the measures required to tackle alcohol misuse at all levels, from the legislative to the community setting.  So I want to thank you for your dedication, and for providing this invaluable resource to policy-makers and legislators.

I also want to thank the individuals here today, from the Health Service Executive, and all the Non-Governmental Organisations who are working on the ground to tackle the harm caused by the abuse of alcohol.

Alcohol Misuse
We all know that Ireland has a serious problem – we drink too much alcohol.  Furthermore, when we drink, we tend to binge drink.  Ireland’s alcohol consumption remains in the top five of EU28 Member States.  Ireland was second in the WHO European Region for binge drinking with 39% of the population misusing alcohol in this manner – at least once a month.  And the European Region as a whole has the highest consumption in the world.

Our most recent national alcohol consumption survey was published by the Health Research Board last year.  This report found that:
54% of drinkers were classified as harmful drinkers.
75% of all alcohol consumed was done as part of a binge drinking session
Irish drinkers underestimate their alcohol intake by 61%.

The study shows that more than half of adult drinkers in the population are classified as harmful drinkers.  This figure does not even include the 20.6% of the population who abstain. When the proportion of survey respondents who are classified as harmful drinkers is applied to the population, this equates with between 1.3 and 1.4 million harmful drinkers in Ireland.

Harmful drinking is more common among men than women, and most common among 18-24 year olds.  In this category a staggering 75% of them drink in a harmful way. In addition, a considerable proportion of ‘self-defined light or moderate drinkers’ drink six or more standard drinks on a typical drinking occasion.  This is equivalent to binge drinking. So even these ‘light drinkers’ do not realise that they consume alcohol in an unhealthy manner.

The findings of this study led to the conclusion that, amongst the drinking population, harmful drinking is the norm in Ireland, in particular for men and women under 35 years. While alcohol consumption per capita declined between 2007 and 2013, it still remains high and the damaging dominance of a harmful drinking pattern in Ireland remains very high by European standards, and is a major public health concern.

Furthermore, from the provisional figures now available, we also know that consumption per capita went up last year, from 10.6 litres per capita to 11 litres.  This is at least partly related to the upturn in the economy. As things continue to improve we will need to ensure that the upturn does not translate into increased alcohol misuse.

Public Health (Alcohol) Bill
Many of you will know that my Department is working on the forthcoming Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.  I believe the legislative measures in the Bill are necessary to change our relationship with alcohol.

This Bill is part of a comprehensive suite of measures to reduce excessive patterns of alcohol consumption, as set out in the Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy. It is also one of the measures being taken under the Healthy Ireland framework.

The aim is to reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland to 9.1 litres per person per annum – the OECD average – by 2020, and to reduce the harms associated with alcohol.   This legislation is the most far-reaching proposed by any Irish Government, with alcohol being addressed for the first time as a public health measure.

The General Scheme for this Bill was published last February and my Department is now drafting the Bill.  I intend to have it ready before the summer recess and introduced in the Houses of the Oireachtas in the Autumn.

The Bill includes provisions for:

  • minimum unit pricing
  • health labelling on alcohol products
  • restrictions on the advertising and marketing of alcohol
  • legal regulation of sports sponsorship
  • enforcement powers for Environmental Health Officers

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children has been holding hearings on the Bill since the beginning of March. I will be addressing the Joint Committee myself tomorrow with a closing statement.

I want to thank those of you who have sent in submissions and made presentations to the Committee supporting the Bill.  Your support is a vital component in ensuring that this legislation is passed – and more importantly – ensuring that the measures are correctly understood by the general public.

Minimum Unit Pricing
The price of alcohol is an important part of any long-term strategic approach to alcohol misuse, and is directly linked to consumption levels and levels of alcohol related harms.  The World Health Organisation has noted “indisputable evidence that the price of alcohol matters.  If the price of alcohol goes up, alcohol-related harm goes down”.  Despite Ireland having relatively high excise duty rates, the price of alcohol remains affordable, particularly in supermarkets.  A woman can reach her low risk weekly drinking limit for just €6.30, while a man can reach this weekly limit for less than €10.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will make it illegal to sell or advertise alcohol for sale at a price below a set minimum price.  Minimum Unit Pricing – also known as MUP – sets a minimum price per gram of alcohol.  The minimum price of an alcohol product will be based on the number of grams of alcohol in the product.

MUP is a targeted measure, designed to prevent the sale of alcohol at very cheap prices.  It can target cheaper alcohol relative to its strength, because the minimum price is determined by the amount of pure alcohol in the drink, and is also directly proportional to that.

MUP is aimed at those who drink in a harmful and hazardous manner.  Alcoholic products which are strong and cheap are those favoured by the heaviest drinkers, who are most at risk of alcohol-related illness and death, and young people who have the least disposable income.

The measure is not expected to affect the price of alcohol in the on-trade.  But it will prevent large multiple retailers from absorbing increases in excise rates and from using alcohol as a loss leader.

Officials in my Department are also looking at possible mechanisms to ensure that some of the financial benefits of MUP might flow back to the Exchequer.

We are currently considering what the appropriate minimum unit price might be, and are consulting estimates from the University of Sheffield report. We are also holding discussions with the relevant Government Departments.  Ultimately, the price needs to be set at a level that will reduce the burden of harm from alcohol misuse, or it will be ineffective.

Regulation of Advertising and Marketing of Alcohol
I want to move on to the regulation of marketing and advertising. Protecting children from exposure to alcohol marketing is an important public health goal.  There is a compelling body of evidence which shows that exposure to alcohol marketing, whether it is on TV, in movies, in public places or alcohol branded sponsorship, predicts future youth drinking.

Numerous longitudinal studies have found that young people who are exposed to alcohol marketing are more likely to start drinking – or if already drinking, to drink more. Research also shows that self-regulation does not protect young people from exposure to large volumes of alcohol marketing and appealing alcohol advertising.

The Public (Health) Alcohol Bill will make it illegal to market or advertise alcohol in a manner that is appealing to children.

It provides for the making of regulations on marketing and advertising alcohol and includes provisions for restrictions on broadcast marketing and advertising, cinema advertising, outdoor advertising, print media and the legal regulation of sponsorship by alcohol companies.

This will encompass major sporting events for the first time by putting the existing Code of Practice for Sponsorships by Drinks Companies on a legal footing with enforcement powers and penalties.

The legislation will have commitment that the provisions on marketing and advertising will be reviewed after three years.

In relation to labelling, research shows that providing accurate information on alcohol content of specific drinks is essential to make people aware of their alcohol intake.  However, labels like ‘standard drink’ or ‘units’ of alcohol are widely misunderstood by the general public.

In order to address this, the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will provide that labels on alcohol products will contain the following:

  • Health warnings and advice, including for advice pregnancy;
  • The amount of pure alcohol as measured in grams; and
  • The calorie count.

Under the Bill, pubs and restaurants will also be obliged to provide this information to customers in relation to alcohol products sold on draught or in measures eg pints, glasses of wine and measures of spirits.

Finally, health warnings and advice will also be included on all promotional material.

Structural Separation of Alcohol Products
In terms of point of sale and display of alcohol in shops, the Minister for Justice and I are currently considering the best way to separate alcohol products from other products in mixed trading premises.  The aim is to ensure that alcohol products cannot be displayed like ordinary grocery products, but will be subject to strict merchandising requirements.

Enforcement Measures
The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will be enforced by Environmental Health Officers.

Provisions to be enforced include those for:

  • minimum unit pricing
  • health labelling
  • the control of marketing and advertising
  • structural separation of alcohol from other products; and
  • regulations for the sale, supply and consumption of alcohol products under section 16 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008. These restrictions will apply to advertising, promoting, selling or supplying alcohol at reduced prices or free of charge.

I will be seeking Government approval to publish the Bill before the summer recess and I look forward to your continued support during its passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Local Drugs and Alcohol Task Forces
Finally, I really believe that we need to do more than bring in new laws if we are going to change attitudes and behaviour.  So I want to say a few words about the focus of today’s conference: local solutions.

The remit of the Task Forces was expanded last year to include alcohol misuse.   The Task Forces have a strong track record in bringing together key players to deal with drug problems.  So it was decided to deploy them more strategically on alcohol, building on their strengths and using their capacities more broadly.

The Alcohol Forum, backed by my Department and the HSE, has developed a skills and training resource for Task Forces to help them to mobilise local communities to reduce alcohol consumption, and alcohol-related harm, by working together. Six Task Forces have been selected for a pilot phase, which is known as “Community Action on Alcohol”.   The project is being piloted in Dublin’s north inner city, in Tallaght, in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown and in the Southern and North-West regions.    The intention is to extend training to other Task Force areas, following an evaluation of the project.

The Dormant Accounts Action Plan for 2014/15 includes provision of €1m for a specific substance misuse measure. In recognition of the role that Task Forces play in education and prevention, they have been identified as the key structures through which the measure will be implemented.

Over €41,600 in funding will be available to every Task Force in the country for a range of activities aimed at raising awareness of alcohol-related harm and changing attitudes to alcohol in our society.  Further details on these funding opportunities will be announced shortly.

To conclude, I want to highlight the need for action at all levels of society to reduce alcohol-related harm.  The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will hopefully play a powerful role in developing a healthier relationship with alcohol.  I am confident that it is a bold first step in the right direction.

However, the work and support of broader communities and society is crucial. I am delighted that the role of local task forces has been strengthened to support this goal.  I am sure that the evidence being presented here today will provide many invaluable insights to all those working in this field. I wish you well for the remainder of the conference.