Minister of State, Mr Brian Lenihan at the opening of a conference Towards changing the Culture – Alcohol abuse and Young People

I am very glad to be here today to launch this conference. There has been much debate recently about young people and the misuse of alcohol. National and international research has verified our fears that the problem of young people misusing alcohol is a growing one.

We are all aware that alcohol is used on many social occasions. Many of us enjoy a drink. But when alcohol is consumed excessively, it causes harm, to the individual, to friends, family, colleagues and to society in general.

Alcohol is clearly being consumed excessively. Against the backdrop of the fastest growing economy in Europe, Ireland has, in the last decade, had the highest increases in alcohol consumption among EU countries.

Many of you here today will be familiar with the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) survey. That survey showed that over half of Ireland´s young people begin experimenting with alcohol before the age of 12. In the younger age groups (under 15 years) more boys than girls are current drinkers, about one in five of 12-14 boys are current drinkers. By the time they reach the 15-16 age group, half of girls and two-thirds of boys are current drinkers. Some of these young drinkers are consuming large quantities of alcohol.

What is particularly alarming is the level of binge drinking and drunkenness. One-third of the 15/16 age group reported binge drinking (5 or more drinks in a row) 3 or more times in the last month and one-quarter reported having been drunk 3 or more times in the last month.

The adverse effects of this type of alcohol misuse are well known and documented. There is a continuum of problems, which can affect everyone across the community and I would like to highlight some of these here today.

In the Western Health Board region for example, over a one year period, 18 teenagers aged 14-17 years were treated in the Accident and Emergency departments for alcohol overdose and 239 adolescents were treated by General Practitioners for alcohol problems.

Children of problem drinking parents are particularly vulnerable to a range of problems and child neglect. Alcohol is the main cause cited for over one third of marital breakdowns.

Personal and social problems have also been experienced by young people as a result of their own alcohol use. Poor school performance, accidents, relationship problems and delinquency problems where experienced by Irish 15/16 year olds as a result of their drinking.

A study among school-going Irish teenagers, reported that 35% of the sexually active respondents said that alcohol was an influencing factor for them engaging in sex. Alcohol use has also been identified as one of the main risk indicators in relation to teenage pregnancy. Unprotected sex gives rise to increased risk of sexually transmitted infections. Among a group of 32 teenage girls attending a sexually transmitted infection clinic, nearly half reported that they had unprotected sex on at least one occasion when drunk. During the last decade sexually transmitted infections have increased by 165% in Ireland.

Excessive drinking increases the risk of drunkenness, fights, assaults and violence. Alcohol-related offences for juveniles are also increasing over the same period. Of particular concern is the increase in “intoxication in public places” among teenagers which increased by 370% since 1996.

Alcohol abuse is a significant risk factor in suicide and compounds the other factors in suicide. There has been a sharp increase in male suicides especially among 15-29 age group and overall it is the biggest cause of death for men aged 15-35 years. Alcoholic disorders continue to be a main cause of admissions to psychiatric hospitals, especially for males.

Many of you here today are aware of these facts and are familiar with the research and the figures. But the question to be posed is where are these young people accessing alcohol?

Research has shown us that for the very young, under 15 years, they obtain alcohol by taking it from the drink supply at home, they are given it by parents or older siblings and friends who buy alcohol for them. For the 15-17 year olds they access alcohol mainly through pubs, club/discos and off-licenses.

All of which in turn poses the question of social acceptance, our acceptance and collusion in this problem. Do we as adults, parents, family members turn a blind eye? Do we provide an appropriate example to those younger by our own behaviour? Do we smile benignly at the friend, relative or family member who has had too much to drink and behaves inappropriately? Do we regard such behaviour with amused tolerance? Do we ensure that alcohol is not easily accessible in our homes or at the very least consumed with adult supervision?

Because if we are careless in these ways we are saying to those young people that this excessive drinking and associated poor behaviour is okay and can be excused. And by doing this we help perpetuate the current social climate of a culture of drunkenness.

It needs to become socially unacceptable for people to be excessively drunk on our streets. It needs to become socially unacceptable for people who are excessively drunk to behave inappropriately, it needs to become socially unacceptable for people to cause public order offences. This change can only occur when we stop excusing such behaviour. It is a change which can be achieved, but I believe it can only occur through multi-sectoral action. In the Department of Health and Children we are working to raise awareness around these issues.

You may be aware that the Health Promotion Unit of the Department of Health and Children is currently running an alcohol awareness campaign entitled Less is More – It´s Your Choice.

The first year of the campaign specifically targeted underage drinkers. It is a three-year campaign which is expanding to include other high risk groups. Phase two of the campaign targeted those who buy/supply/sell alcohol to under-age drinkers. It consisted of radio advertisements and posters which were displayed in pubs, off-licenses and retail outlets where alcohol is sold. The emphasis was that everyone should play their part by not making alcohol accessible to young people.

Another initiative involved the printing of sensible drinking advice on airline ticket wallets, which were circulated by the Health Promotion Unit to holidaymakers via travel agents. These coincided with the summer holiday season and exam results and reinforced the message of having a great time, without being too out of it to really “experience” the moment.

The Responsible Serving of Alcohol (RSA) programme is a training initiative, which is developed specifically for those who work in the bar trade and hospitality sector. The aim of this programme is to limit harm in the drinking environment by not serving to intoxicated customers, encouraging the use of age cards as standard practice and promoting alternative strategies to reduce drink driving.

The development of the national curriculum in health education (Social, Personal and Health Education), the promotion of school policies on alcohol and drugs, the greater involvement of parents and communities under the health promoting schools concept ensures a comprehensive and effective long term approach in education.

A Strategic Task Force on Alcohol, which Minister Micheál Martin established this year, was given a remit to provide advice to Government and public bodies on measures to prevent and reduce alcohol harm.

The Interim Report of the Task Force was published in May of this year and provides a series of recommendations aimed at tackling alcohol related problems.

I have mentioned just some of the many other ongoing initiatives and projects. However the process of changing a culture depends on the individual’s attitude combined with the swelling tide of public intolerance for a practice which should no longer be a social norm. Conferences such as you have today play an important part in this process and assist in bringing about these changes.

Thank you for your attention. I am sorry that I am unable to stay for what I believe will be an interesting and fruitful conference. I hope you all enjoy it and I wish you success with the conference.