Minister Micheál Martin at the launch of the Alcohol Awareness Campaign

Ladies and Gentlemen. Here’s the bad news. And it’s very bad news.

Ireland’s young people are drinking more than their peers in any other European country. Research to this effect is to be published next week – and it’s going to make grim reading. It puts us up there at the top of the league of European under-age drinkers.

None of us can be proud of topping that particular league. Nobody in my position could fail to take action, in the light of that research.

Which is why I’m announcing two things today: a wide-ranging campaign designed – effectively – to shout ‘Stop!’

The second thing I’m announcing is my personal opposition to deregulation of off-licenses and pubs. I’ve made a strong submission to Minister O’Donoghue’s Commission in this regard. What I’ve said is that – whatever about the commercial merits of de-regulation – the public health risks would be (in my view) intolerable.

Here’s where we’re at: we’re drinking too much. Our young people are drinking too much and too early. All of this is costing us dearly right now, and is going to continue to cost us, ‘way down the line.

The second point is that alcohol is no ordinary product. We’re not talking boiled sweets, here. Therefore, economic market rules do not and should not apply. Controls must be in place to regulate availability. We already have longer opening hours – why on earth would we need even more places to buy alcohol.

Research tells us one inescapable truth, and it’s this. When alcohol is less easy to get hold of, alcohol-related harm goes down. This has been established by extensive review of studies examining the role of availability (including through off-licenses.) Edwards and colleagues, in 1994, stated unequivocally that:

“Where alcohol is less available, less convenient to purchase or less accessible, consumption and alcohol related problems are lowered.”

It may seem obvious, but I don’t want that simple truth missed in any debate about de-regulation. If we make alcohol more easily available through deregulation, then underage drinking and the myriad of problems that come with underage drinking are going to escalate. We cannot kid ourselves that this won’t happen.

In one single year – 1999 – problems related to alcohol cost this country £1.7 billion. Not my figures. Figures coming out of the European Comparative Alcohol study. Figures based on conservative assumptions. £1.7 billion. Made up of healthcare costs. Costs of road accidents. Costs from crime, costs from absenteeism. It’s a very high financial price we’re paying for the way we’re choosing to use alcohol at the moment.

And it doesn’t come near the emotional price we’re paying. The human suffering and distress caused every day, in every town and townland in this country, is unimaginable. Families endure public disgrace and private humiliation. Right now – and with implications for the future, since we know that the children of alcoholics sometimes carry a grim inheritance into the next generation.

Given the fiscal and h-no, let me put them in their right order. Given the human and the fiscal costs, it would be fair to assume that the campaign I’m launching today would be an anti-alcohol blast.

It isn’t an anti-alcohol blast. It’s very clearly an alcohol awareness campaign. Awareness. Because that’s what’s missing at the moment.

Alcohol is an assumption, a given. I have a friend who’s a classics teacher who’s always quoting that line “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It came back to me when I was listening to the details of today’s campaign, because it struck me: yeah. That’s the problem. Unexamined drinking patterns.

When I say ‘unexamined’ I mean that we very often assume alcohol has to be part of having a good time. (Examine that assumption, and we realise: not necessarily.)

Similarly, within some groups, at the moment, there’s an assumption that getting drunk has to be part of any decent weekend. (Examine that assumption and it begins to sound very dodgy.)

Another belief – I’m afraid it’s very rapidly turning out to be a myth – is that young girls leave the heavy drinking to the lads. Not so, any more. The figures coming out next week are particularly startling when it comes to the hard-drinking it found among fifteen to sixteen year old girls. In many cases, girls are drinking as much as boys are. Using more alcohol, being drunk as often, binge-drinking as often.

It’s a shocking set of statistics and a tough message. It’s telling us to stop kidding ourselves and face up to the reality of our national alcohol problem. Because that’s what it is. A national alcohol problem.

The unexamined use of alcohol is leading us where we don’t want to go. In fact, the unexamined use of alcohol has led us where we certainly don’t want to be.

It’s imperative we change that. Imperative we start examining how we’re using alcohol and how we should be using it. Imperative we stop some of our assumptions in their tracks and develop a much, much higher awareness about alcohol use. At all ages. In all sectors.

In my last political incarnation – as Minister for Education – I was fascinated by how often people thought of The Schools or The Educational System as the bucket into which any problem – every problem – should be thrown. Didn’t matter whether it was crime or bad grooming – the theory was that by reaching young people in school, you could solve it.

Our unexamined alcohol consumption includes consumption by schoolgoers, certainly. But it’s a whole lot wider than that age-group, and I want to make it very clear that the campaign we’re announcing is both long-range (lasting at least three years) and broad-spectrum. The main target groups aimed at are the twelve to fourteen year olds, fifteen to seventeen year olds and eighteen to twenty four year olds.

When you’re over forty, it’s very easy to think “Oh, yes, kids.” As if they were all roughly the same age.

Here’s the truth. Every one of those groups is a different generation.

Forty five year olds are not that different from fifty year olds, but between twelve year olds and sixteen year olds, there’s a world of difference. And a lot of different surrounding contexts, too. The younger group are greatly influenced by – and can be a great influence on – their families. The older group are greatly influenced – and can be a great influence on – their colleagues, their social friends.

When I launched the website connected to this campaign on Monday – it’s aimed at teenagers – I stressed to the young people at the launch that this is not one of those top/down campaigns, where the older generation tell the younger generation how to live.

It’s not that kind of campaign for two reasons. Firstly, when it comes to alcohol, that kind of campaign doesn’t work. Secondly, this campaign can actually work the other way – young people can be extremely influential on their parents, as we’ve seen when youngsters go to work on their parents to persuade them to give up cigarettes.

The key thing is to give them the information. And to influence some of the factors surrounding their eventual use of alcohol. If they eventually use alcohol.

Factors like the way alcohol is served – we’re working in conjunction with the drinks industry, on a programme to develop the responsible serving of alcohol.

And even more powerful factors. Like advertising. Advertising for alcohol is clever, creative and – according to our research – reaching young people in a way that is not always positive.

For that reason, I’m asking the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI) to include two key recommendations in their updated code.

Number one: that the placement of alcohol advertising shouldn’t be permitted in media where more than 25% of the audience is underage. Those who promote or advertise alcohol online should provide mechanisms for parents to prevent their children’s access to that advertising, avoid content that’s attractive to underage customers and post educational messages about responsible drinking.

Number two: That the content of alcohol advertising should reflect the essence of the EU Directive and in particular that alcohol ads shouldn’t create the impression that alcohol drinking contributes to social and sexual success.

No responsible producer of alcohol will have a problem with these provisions. This isn’t about shutting down options or banning an aspect of enjoyment.

It’s about making people more aware of the implications of their choices. And it’s about making those responsible for context take that responsibility very seriously. The context within which a large number of our young people live, work and socialise, for example, is college.

Third level institutions in the past number of years have expressed concern about alcohol consumption practices and in particular the type and nature of sponsorship by the Drinks Industry on campuses. It’s time to turn that concern into something more.

I would like to invite and encourage the Heads of all third level institutions to develop guidelines and campus alcohol policies to ensure that social and academic life on campus is enjoyable and safe for everything. My Department and I are more than willing to develop this initiative with all interested parties.

This third level initiative would have the same objective as all the other complex actions involved in this campaign. It’s about making people more aware of the choices they have.

And maybe – just maybe – moving alcohol slightly out of its centre-stage position. Because if we don’t move alcohol away from centre stage, as a nation, we’re going to find it’s running the whole show.

In conclusion, I would like to express my appreciation to RTE and TV3 for lending their support to this campaign.