Speeches

Speech by Mr Pat the Cope Gallagher T.D., Minister for Health Promotion and Food Safety at the opening of MEAS Conference – “Working Together to Reduce Alcohol Related Harm”

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am pleased to be here this morning to officially open this conference entitled “Working Together to Reduce Alcohol Related Harm”. I understand that this is the fifth in a series of annual seminars/conferences hosted by MEAS concerning the major issue of alcohol in society. This conference provides an opportunity to hear from respected experts operating in the Irish and European contexts about developments in alcohol strategy and the implementation of initiatives designed to tackle alcohol misuse through a partnership model. I want to thank MEAS for providing me with the opportunity to address you here this morning.

Extent of Alcohol Consumption in Ireland

The extent of our consumption of alcohol in Ireland is well documented in various research and surveys. I might just remind you of some key features.

•Alcohol consumption per capita in the Irish population increased by 17% over the past 11 years;
•In 2006, average consumption of pure alcohol per person in Ireland over 15 years of age was 13.36 litres. This is 30% above the EU average. Indications are that the comparable consumption figure for 2007 will show an increase on 2006 and reverse the slow downward trend from 2004.
•54% of Irish people binge drink at least once weekly, compared to 28% of Europeans;
•Half of children aged 15-17 years old report they have consumed alcohol in the preceding month.

Let me express our alcohol consumption another way. On average everyone over 15 years of age who drinks, consumes 25 units or 12 pints of beer or 3 bottles of wine or 1 bottle of spirits each week. The weekly recommended limit for men is 21 units or 10 and a half pints of beer and for women, 14 units or 7 pints of beer. Therefore, the average person is consuming in excess of the recommended limit. This has serious implications for public health.

Impact on Health

The World Health Organisation’s Global Burden of Disease Study (2004) reported that alcohol was the third most detrimental risk factor for European ill health and premature death, only surpassed by raised blood pressure and smoking. Alcohol was slightly more detrimental than high cholesterol and being overweight, two and a half times more detrimental than physical inactivity and four times more detrimental than illicit drugs.

The World Health Organisation has also stated that the level of alcohol consumption in a population is an important determinant of health and disease. In any given society, levels of alcohol-related deaths and diseases tend to rise and fall with rises and falls in overall levels of consumption.

Impact on Health in Ireland

A report by the Health Research Board which was published late last year gave an insight to the health effects of our alcohol consumption. It stated that:

•Alcohol related hospital admissions increased by 88% (from 9,254 to 17,378) between 1995 and 2004.
•Hospital admissions for alcohol related liver diseases increased by 147% in the same period.
•Death from alcohol-related diseases has increased from 3.8 per 100,000 adult population in 1995 to 7.1 in 2004.
•Overall, women account for a quarter of alcohol related admissions to hospital but in those under 17, the figure is almost 50%.

Impact on Society

Alcohol consumption is an integral part of Irish life. But alcohol can – and so often does – lead to problems for individuals and for the wider community when it is misused. Alcohol harm is visible throughout Ireland; on the streets, in the courts, hospitals, workplaces, schools and homes. Despite the tendency to ‘blame’ underage drinkers, the vast majority of alcohol harm occurs among the adult population. It manifests itself, for example, in street violence, accidents, hospital admissions, drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, suicides, alcohol dependency, cancers and cirrhosis. Some of these problems, especially the acute problems, arise where the light or moderate drinker drinks to excess on a single drinking occasion, while others result from regular heavy drinking over a longer period of time.

The problem of alcohol misuse is all too visible in our society. We need to strengthen our resolve to tackle alcohol problems. We all have a part to play. We need to take responsibility both collectively and individually. We need to examine our social acceptance of alcohol and the signal that this is sending, particularly to our young people. We have to ask ourselves if adults provide an appropriate example to younger people in relation to alcohol. It also needs to become socially unacceptable for people to be excessively drunk on our streets. 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.

Policy Measures and Actions to Address Alcohol-related Harm

In order to tackle the problems of alcohol misuse in our society I support the contention that effective strategies and interventions need to take a twin-track approach. I believe that alcohol policies and interventions targeted at vulnerable populations can prevent alcohol-related harm. However, I also believe that policies targeted at the population at large can have a protective effect on vulnerable populations and reduce the overall level of alcohol problems. This is the policy approach being taken by the Department of Health and Children. I firmly believe that certain additional measures are required particularly regarding price and the ease of availability of alcohol. In this context I look forward to the Report of the Government Alcohol Advisory Group established by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Sustaining Progress Working Group on Alcohol

As I mentioned earlier, there is a role for a multiplicity of stakeholders in tackling alcohol-related harm in society. In July 2005, a Working Group on Alcohol was established to help mobilise the stakeholders through social partnership to achieve a targeted and measurable reduction in alcohol misuse. The Working Group operated in the context of the Special Initiative on Alcohol and Drug Misuse under Sustaining Progress.

The Working Group was comprised of the social partners, relevant Government Departments, Gardaí, National Drugs Strategy Team and Health Services Executive. It examined the issues of underage drinking, drink driving and high risk drinking. The report was published in June 2006.

The report recommended a set of actions on issues such as community mobilisation, workplace alcohol policies, labeling and education and awareness. An Implementation Group was established in November 2006 to monitor and report on progress on the implementation of the recommendations. The Implementation Group is expected to report in the very near future. Mr Peter Cassells, who chaired the Group will be addressing you later this morning.

The benefits of partnership working have been a cornerstone for the economic success we have experienced. In relation to alcohol policy, the Sustaining Progress initiative has allowed a broad range of stakeholders to work together towards a common goal i.e. to reduce the harms caused by alcohol misuse. I believe that there are further benefits to be achieved from such a process. Perhaps a future remit for such a group around a small number of key initiatives or areas might present a possibility of further progress being made. Such a group could work in parallel or provide a forum for discussion on other regulatory or legislative remedies which may be proposed or introduced by Government.

I recognize that an adversarial approach between the key players involved in policy and program development is not the most efficient or effective way of proceeding. The interests of the various parties will certainly not be identical, but this does not mean that agreement cannot be reached in important areas. Each sector has its own strengths, and partnerships should seek to harness these strengths in order to advance a common agenda of reducing the harms caused by alcohol misuse. Acceptance that no one stakeholder can bring about change on their own and that no one action is sufficient, is a good starting point.

MEAS

MEAS has been to the forefront in recent years in raising awareness through advertising and media campaigns. The visibility and penetration of the MEAS campaigns has caused further debate and heightened awareness of the problem. I met with Fionnula Sheehan recently and I have no doubt about her commitment to what she and MEAS are trying to do. We may have different approaches to the problem, but, I believe, that there are areas where there can be and should be co-operation. I know that the Health Service Executive and MEAS have met to identify common ground in their respective roles in raising awareness and dissemination of materials. I believe that such co-operation should be based on the factors that unite rather than divide both organisations.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to thank Fionnuala Sheehan for inviting me to deliver the opening address today. I hope that this will be a successful Conference and that it will contribute further to the serious debate around alcohol misuse in our society. Partnership working has a role to play and I hope we can all continue to work together in the future.