Speeches

Speech by Minister for Health and Children, Mr Micheál Martin T.D. at the Launch of the Interim Report of the Strategic Task Force on Alcohol

Introduction

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great pleasure to be here with you today to launch the first Interim Report of the Strategic Task Force on Alcohol. The purpose of the Task Force is to provide advice to Government and public bodies on measures to prevent and reduce alcohol harm.

And I thank them for working hard to produce this report under the pressure of a short deadline.

Consumption

The consumption of alcohol in Ireland has risen steadily over the last six years. We are now drinking more than almost all our EU colleagues.

This is a worrying trend but what is of even more concern is the rate of increase in our consumption. In the last six years the consumption of spirits alone has increased over 50% and there has been a staggering increase of 100% in the consumption of cider. Between 1989 and 1999 per capita alcohol consumption increased by a massive 41%. The overall per capita alcohol consumption in Ireland for the year 2000 was 14.2 and the latest estimates for 2001 confirm that this figure will continue to rise. These statistics are even more startling when compared to that of other EU countries.

Nine of the European Union member states showed a decrease in alcohol consumption during the period 1989 – 1999 and three countries showed a modest increase of just over 5%. The implications of this trend are hugely significant. If we look back ten years from now and observe that this curve has not peaked then the consequences for our society and indeed our health system are frightening.

The overall level of consumption is important but so too are the patterns of drinking. Drinking patterns were examined as part of the first national lifestyle survey in 1999. The survey reported on the drinking habits of those aged 18 years and over.

Important age differences emerged which showed that the younger age groups 18-24 and 25-34 drank less often than older age groups but were more likely to engage in high risk drinking when they did drink. The statistics on underage drinking are equally troubling. The ESPAD survey, which was published last year showed that one-third of Irish 15-16 year-olds reported binge drinking three or more times in the last 30 days.

Alcohol related harm

Inappropriate drinking results in immense suffering and costs that impact on the health and welfare of the whole community, both on the individual drinker themselves and for those around them. While the economic costs of alcohol related problems are difficult to calculate, a conservative figure was estimated in 1999 to be in the region of €2.4 billion annually. This amounts to 1.7% of Gross Domestic Product. This figure includes costs such as healthcare, road accidents, alcohol related crime and lost productivity. The scale of the problem is horrifying.

Some of the individual statistics make for disturbing reading. Drink driving offences continue to increase with 10,500 detected in 2000. If we look at road accidents, overall, there has been a marked decrease in both the number of people killed and injured in road accidents since 1997. However, the number of people killed during the time most associated with drink driving, 9pm to 4am, has not substantially decreased. In fact this period of time accounts for one-third of all road deaths.

The prevalence of interpersonal violence also testifies to the harm associated with binge drinking. In Ireland, between 1996 – 2000 there has been an increase of 97% in public order offences, the vast majority of these being alcohol related.

These and other indicators of harm are important but perhaps the most important for me as Minister for Health and Children and for many of the health professionals here today are the indicators of physical and mental health and I am sorry to say that the figures are equally grim.

The finding that one in five hospital in-patients were seriously abusing alcohol demonstrates the extent of the problem in Ireland. Equally, the statistic that one in four patients attending Accident and Emergency Units are there as a result of alcohol is an intolerable one.

Based on these facts I welcome the active role recommended by the Task Force for the Health Boards. In terms of the right to object on public health grounds in the licensing process and also in relation to working with the gardai, emergency services and alcohol outlets in reducing harm in and around the drinking environment.

Alcohol and health

Alcohol disorders continue to be a main cause of admissions to psychiatric hospitals, especially for men. In 1999, alcoholic disorders accounted for 20% of male admissions and 11% of female admissions to psychiatric hospitals. Alcohol is frequently listed as a contributory factor in deaths from suicide.

Many incidents of drowning, falls and burns are linked to alcohol. In Ireland in 1997, 23,500 people were admitted to acute hospitals as a result of accidental falls and a study carried out in Australia found that 34% of falls such as these could be attributed to alcohol. When we see that the average stay in hospital of these people was 5.76 days it becomes clear that alcohol related falls alone are contributing significantly to bed occupancy in our hospitals with all of the associated costs and difficulties this causes.

Individuals who drink too much on one occasion often cause problems, such as these. However, people who drink heavily on a regular basis can also suffer from chronic alcohol-related harm.

Illnesses such as cirrhosis of the liver, cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus and liver have all been linked to long-term alcohol use. We have seen increases in many of these in recent years.

Preventing the problem before it arises is always preferable. With this goal in mind, the Health Promotion Unit of my Department is involved in a number of initiatives to tackle inappropriate drinking patterns. Work is ongoing in schools, in the youth sector and in colleges. A Responsible Serving of Alcohol training programme and a three-year campaign aimed at raising public awareness are underway.

The Task Force has recommended “Protecting children and reducing pressure on adolescents to drink” and I am happy to say that issues such as the advertising of alcohol are currently being examined. In fact just recently WHO brought together international experts to review all the evidence of alcohol marketing and the promotion of alcohol to young people. It was recommended, “countries take the necessary steps to ensure that young people are not exposed to promotional messages about alcohol”. And as a member of the WHO public health community we support these recommendations.

My Department also commissioned research on the impact of alcohol advertising on teenagers in Ireland. The report clearly showed that teenagers are strongly attracted to alcohol advertisements. It is now time that we respond to reducing exposure of children and adolescents to alcohol marketing.

The Interim report identifies further measures that are needed and these measures are based on sound scientific evidence. At this point I would like to thank Professor Robin Room for his expertise in providing clear indications of what works in terms of effective alcohol policy measures.

Conclusion

The issue of alcohol related harm impacts on every aspect of Irish life, on the individual, on society and on our health system. It is an issue that must be explored and examined at every opportunity and in every setting if we are to make progress towards its resolution.

I have read all of the recommendations of the Task Force with interest and will strongly support the progress of those recommendations that fall within the remit of my own Department. I will also actively engage with my colleagues in Government to support the implementation of the broader recommendations in an effort to prevent and reduce alcohol related harm.

Once again I would like to thank the Task Force for their great work within a tight timeframe and I look forward to further recommendations.

Thank You.