Alcohol Forum National Conference – Opening Address by Alex White TD, Minister of State at the Department of Health
I would like to thank Pat Harvey, Executive Chairman of the Alcohol Forum for inviting me back to your annual conference to deliver the opening address. The work that the Alcohol Forum does in raising awareness of the damage caused by the abuse of alcohol is of vital importance in changing our attitudes and reducing our levels of harmful drinking. It was an honour to attend and open last year’s conference and I’m delighted to begin proceedings again today. As you’re all aware, this year’s conference is entitled, ‘Alcohol Harm to Others: When Their Drinking Becomes Your Problem’.
I welcome you all to the National Convention Centre today and in particular those who have travelled from abroad. The key themes to be explored as part of the conference include:
- Family problems,
- Assaults, crime and anti-social behaviour,
- Passengers travelling with a driver under the influence of alcohol and
- Workplace accidents and loss of productivity.
Recent research has proved that these problems are exacerbated by and are often the direct result of the misuse of alcohol in Ireland.
Alcohol Harm to Others
In the past when we spoke about the harmful effects of alcohol we tended to focus on the harm that is caused to the individual. We’re all too painfully aware of the harms caused by alcohol misuse and I don’t need to repeat the list of those harms and the statistics that you’re all familiar with.
This is why I am especially glad to see that with today’s conference and the Alcohol Harm 2 Others’ Research Report the focus is expanding to the harm that alcohol causes to others. A turning point in support for tobacco control policies was recognition from the public of the damage caused to others by passive smoking. Similarly, I believe that public support for alcohol policies will be enhanced when people realise that the abuse of alcohol has a damaging impact on the family, the workplace, and society as a whole.
The aim of today’s conference is to advance debate and mobilise communities, locally and nationally, to reduce alcohol harms in Ireland. By encouraging people to examine alcohol-related issues and how they impact on all of us, it will stimulate conversation and debate and help to bring about a positive change to our harmful relationship with alcohol in Ireland.
By expanding this conversation into our local towns, villages and cities, we can help harness a community approach to alcohol. For example, the Galway City Alcohol Forum has brought together local individuals, groups and organisations to create a localised alcohol strategy and action plan for their area. Reducing alcohol consumption in Ireland is not just a task for Government, it’s also an issue where local communities can take a lead.
I think the conference this year will be especially impactful as it coincides with Alcohol Awareness Week. I hope that as a result of today’s conference and Alcohol Awareness Week, we can share the conversations we have here today with our families, friends and local communities.
Public Health Alcohol Bill
The Government is committed to tackling alcohol misuse in Ireland and the widespread harm and pain it causes. A comprehensive and detailed plan has been approved to address this problem. This is the first time that the misuse of alcohol has been addressed as a public health issue.
Our alcohol problem is significant and we need decisive and innovative action to address it. The overall objective is to reduce Irish consumption of alcohol from 12 litres of pure alcohol per person per year to 9.2 litres (the OECD average) by 2020.
I want to assure you all today that this Bill is being drafted in the Department of Health, and we are making good progress. We all know the tremendous amount of work that has gone into reaching this point and I’m well aware that this hard work needs to continue.
The recommendations of the National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group Report underpin the Bill which will provide for:
- Minimum unit pricing for retailing of alcohol products;
- Regulation of marketing and advertising of alcohol;
- Regulation of sports sponsorship, specifically replace existing voluntary code that governs sports sponsorship with a statutory code.
- Separation of alcohol from other products;
- Enforcement powers for Environmental Health Officers in relation to alcohol; and
- Health labelling of alcohol products.
It is expected that the North/South research on minimum unit pricing will be completed by June 2014. The study is modelling the impact of various minimum unit prices on consumption of alcohol, along with looking at the benefits that we believe will flow to our respective health and criminal justice systems, and to the broader economy from reduced consumption of alcohol. We want everyone to benefit economically and socially from addressing alcohol misuse through healthier, happier, safer families and communities.
The Role of the Alcohol Industry
Of course the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill and the Government’s attempt to address alcohol misuse in Ireland as a public health issue has not been without its critics. This is inevitable. Delivering the kind of action that will have real impact on reducing alcohol consumption levels requires more than a periodic outcry. It calls for public support and the implementation of policy choices that some will find difficult, or even objectionable. As I’ve said before, there is no easy way here.
As part of the public dialogue surrounding the Bill, many of us in this room have been accused of treating the drinks industry like a “pariah”. This is certainly not my intention.
The drinks industry has a job to do which is to sell alcohol and maximise shareholder interests. They are perfectly entitled to do this. As large employers they have a role in our recovering economy. The drinks lobby advocates the industry’s business interests vigorously and I have no objection to that.
However, the conflicting interests of the drinks industry who seek to increase the consumption of alcohol and public health professionals who seek to reduce the consumption of alcohol really cannot be reconciled when it comes to formulating public health policy. The alcohol industry seeks a role for itself in public health policy areas that extend far beyond their role as producers and retailers of alcohol.
We know about the adverse effects of alcohol consumption on children, families and communities. All of us in this room are committed to reducing alcohol consumption and the misuse of alcohol. The time has come to act. We should try to proceed by consensus as far as we can. But to be effective we will have to be radical. The nature of the challenge we are addressing requires a real public health response. This is what the government has agreed.
In order for these measures to gain momentum and have a positive impact for change, the support of the broader community and society needs to be harnessed, which is exactly what you’re doing as part of the Alcohol Awareness Week. We need to inform the public about the collateral damage caused by alcohol abuse, the aims of these policies and change our attitude to alcohol in general. I hope that with today’s conference and with Alcohol Awareness Week, by working together, we can achieve and go beyond our goal of reducing our consumption of alcohol to the OECD average by 2020.