Speeches

Speech for Micheál Martin, T.D. Minister for Health and Children at the launch of the final phase of the National Alcohol Awareness Campaign

Introduction

Good morning everyone. I am delighted to be here with you today to launch the final phase of the National Alcohol Awareness Campaign. This campaign was developed over three years ago, in response to what we began to recognise as the increasing rates of excessive and inappropriate alcohol consumption and the increasing rates of related harm.

The objective of the campaign was and still is to increase the public´s awareness of the problem and generate debate around the issue and the campaign has been hugely successful in achieving this. Alcohol is now uppermost on the public health agenda and I am anxious that it stays there until a reduction in alcohol consumption and the associated problems has been achieved. The research that is being highlighted today makes it even more necessary that alcohol remains centre stage.

That research (by Dr Ann Hope and another highly respected Swedish researcher, Mats Ramstedt) has thrown up some further information on our alcohol consumption in this country.

Over the last three years you may have become aware that while we have been discussing the volume of alcohol consumption, we have been giving equal attention to the pattern of drinking.

While the volume of alcohol consumption is important, the changing pattern of drinking is hugely significant. I have heard people who have very little understanding of the issues associated with alcohol consumption trivialise some of the research findings which we have released over the past couple of years. They say “we were the same when we were young”, “going out and getting drunk is a type of initiation into adulthood” These people do not have a clear or complete picture of alcohol in our society.

Things are not the same as when we were young . . . Alcohol consumption has increased by 49% in the last decade. We are not drinking in the same manner, i.e. our drinking patterns have changed and many people now drink to become intoxicated.

Young 18-25 year old adults are more likely to engage in this pattern of drinking, i.e. binge drinking, when they drink, but drink less frequently than older age groups. This pattern is significant specifically because acute problems such as trips and falls, alcohol poisoning, incidents of unintentional sex, public order offences etc tend to occur when the light to moderate drinker drinks to excess, (binges), on a single occasion. Therefore the fact is that alongside the increased alcohol consumption, there is a parallel increase in these types of problems.

This paper by Hope and Ramstedt, The Irish Drinking Culture -Drinking and Drinking-Related Harm, a European Comparison, provides analysis based on a survey containing similar questions that was used in a recent European comparative survey involving Finland, Sweden, Germany, UK, France and Italy, known as the ECAS countries. The analysis reveals some interesting features which incorporates both the level of consumption and the pattern of consumption:

  • the average volume of alcohol consumed reported in Ireland was 9.3 litres which is twice the level reported in most of the ECAS countries except for the UK where reported consumption was 9 litres.
  • Binge drinking is the norm among men in Ireland – out of 100 drinking occasions, 58 result in binge drinking for men and in 30 for women. This is higher than any of the other ECAS countries.
  • There are more problems per drinker in Ireland. The higher problem rates are especially associated with acute adverse consequences and in social harm and were much higher than in other ECAS countries with the exception of women in the UK.

The clear message from this research is that we must change our drinking patterns – we need to cut down and slow down our drinking.

What are we doing?

The Health Promotion Unit of my Department is coordinating a number of initiatives aimed at achieving this. Most importantly, the Unit has identified two key health settings where early intervention can take place; in primary care and in the hospital setting (emergency room and general hospital).

The Health Promotion Unit provided funding to the ICGP Alcohol Aware Practice Pilot Study. This study was recently published and has shown promising results. The main aim of the project is to assist the G.P. to help patients with alcohol problems more effectively. The Health Promotion Unit is supporting an extension of this study to involve many more GP practices around the country.

 

The Health Promotion Unit has also funded the first national emergency room study. It is anticipated that as a result of this study, there will be an emergent plan to establish a national screening tool and a protocol for intervention in the emergency room and hospital setting.

The Alcohol Awareness Campaign Less is More has been running for almost three years. During that time, public awareness about issues in relation to alcohol has grown exponentially and there has been an accompanying demand for materials to inform and advise members of the public.

The Health Promotion Unit has developed new materials to meet this need. A Guide to Rethinking Your Drinking is intended as a resource for the general public and also for Health Professionals who may wish to stimulate discussion with their patients on their drinking habits and on how to cut down.

It should be especially useful in the context of the GP Alcohol Aware Practice Study. It is being distributed this week to G.P.´s, Health Promotion Officers, Addiction Counsellors, Regional Drug Coordinators etc.

The Little Book of Women and Alcohol, is targeting women between the ages of 18-35. It aims to increase their understanding of the effects of alcohol on their bodies, and to consider the effects of high levels of binge drinking on health, finances and relationships.

The booklet will be distributed with the Star´s weekly magazine 7, on October 25th and also to Wellwoman Centres, Social, Community and Family Affairs’ Local Offices, Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Offices etc.

One of the initiatives being launched today is very novel, and I am sure will also be a very successful new project. “A Hundred Thousand Angels” is a partnership between one of Ireland´s most successful artists Sinead O´Connor, one of Ireland´s leading children’s charities, Barnardos, and the Health Promotion Unit of my Department.

All proceeds from the single, which will be on sale from November 7th, and indeed a proportion from her recent album, will go to Barnardos. Inside the CD a little booklet will be contain information on alcohol and Barnardos. The information is not intended as advice, but rather to provide interesting facts to help stimulate discussion on the subject of alcohol.

In addition, the Health Promotion Unit will also run an Advertising Campaign which portrays the excesses of alcohol on a young woman in Cinemas nationwide from mid November for three weeks.

What exactly are the implications of our binge drinking culture? Again results from today´s research show they are quite considerable. The people taking part in this study were asked eight questions about harm they may have experienced as a result of their drinking in the past twelve months. These questions concerned issues such as “getting into a fight”, “had an accident”, “felt that drinking affected work, relationships, health” etc. The responses to these questions were troubling.

Thirty-nine percent of male drinkers and 24 % of female drinkers report experiencing at least one of the eight negative consequences mentioned. The average number of problems experienced was also high. In fact 11.5% of men report having got into a fight within the last year. This compares with 7.5% for the UK and the overall average for the ECAS countries was just 3.6%.

For seven of the eight harm indicators examined, men in Ireland reported figures that were above the ECAS average. In some cases these were many times higher than the average. The answers given by women were higher than the average for five of the eight questions.

It goes without saying that costs of this type of harm has enormous impact, both in personal terms and in the burden it places on our acute services and justice systems. In fact, a paper commissioned as part of the European Comparative Alcohol Study, the resource cost of alcohol-related problems in Ireland in 1999 was estimated at close to €2.4 billion.

There are a number of other research projects still ongoing and I expect that a study of lifestyle, attitudes and nutrition of third level students will shortly be published which I´m sure will also stimulate further discussion.

There are a couple of significant developments in terms of concrete steps being taken to deal with the problems.

Strategic Task Force on Alcohol

I established a Strategic Task Force on Alcohol early in 2001, whose remit was to recommend evidenced based measures to Government to prevent and reduce alcohol harm. The Task Force published an Interim Report in May last year. This provides a series of recommendations aimed at tackling alcohol related problems. These recommendations were reviewed by the Cabinet and an inter-Departmental Group was established to co-ordinate the responses of Departments to the Task Force recommendations. This Group will shortly be reporting back with their views on the recommendations. The Task Force is continuing to meet and is examining further actions which can be taken.

Legislation

One of the recommendations of the Task Force concerns limiting the exposure of children and adolescents to alcohol marketing. Government approval has been granted for the drafting of legislation which will enable me, as Minister for Health and Children to introduce regulations to control alcohol advertising, sponsorship and marketing practices / sales promotions. The primary aim of the legislation is to protect children and reduce the pressure on adolescents to drink. The Heads of a Bill have been approved by Cabinet and I hope to introduce the Bill during the next term.

Conclusion

These figures reflect actual harm and hardship being experienced by people in this country in their everyday lives.

It is fitting therefore, that we should discuss this research at the launch of an initiative which will provide funding for concrete action at a place where it is most needed – in the family home. The protection of children from the harm associated with alcohol abuse is work beyond value and I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Barnardos for their continuing efforts.

In conclusion then, I would like to thank all those involved in the production of this single and in particular Sinead O´Connor who is foregoing royalties from its sale. I know that a great deal of time and effort has gone into this production and I am delighted that those involved have agreed that the proceeds be donated to one of Ireland’s most hardworking charities Barnardos. I would like to thank Owen Keenan, Chief Executive of Barnardos and who is also a member of the Strategic Task Force on Alcohol for agreeing to participate in this project. I am confident that his organisation will ensure that the money raised is used where is it is most needed.

Thank you very much for your attention.