Speeches

Speech for the Minster for Health and Children at the presentation of the Strategic Task Force on Alcohol report

Introduction

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I welcome the completion of the second Strategic Task Force on Alcohol (STFA) report.

This comprehensive report includes a list of recommendations, whose purpose is to enhance society’s capacity to prevent and respond to alcohol related harm, to achieve the targets set out in the WHO Declaration on Young People and Alcohol, to provide for early intervention to ensure effective treatments and to increase the responsibility of the drinks industry in reducing alcohol abuse. This wide-ranging report, which I will be bringing to Government, contains recommendations relevant to many different sectors in Irish life. For my part as Minister for Health and Children, I want to place particular priority on protecting children from the harmful effects of alcohol and on advising of the risks associated with consuming alcohol during pregnancy.

I have often said that one of the biggest problems we have in this country in relation to alcohol is one of cultural acceptance – although it might be more accurate to say cultural indifference.  We have all been guilty of a laissez faire attitude to alcohol and the phrase Sure, what’s the harm in a few pints? is familiar to us all.  Let me stress there is nothing wrong in enjoying a drink. However, for a large portion of the population it does not stop there.

Consumption and consumption patterns

Irish people continue to be one of the highest consumers of alcohol in the world.  In EU terms, Ireland ranked second in 2001 with a consumption level of 14.4 litres of pure alcohol per adult.  A recent international study shows that adults in Ireland in 2002 had the highest level of binge drinkers in comparison to other European countries.

This study shows that binge drinking is the norm among Irish men. Out of every 100 drinking occasions, 58 end up in binge drinking.  And among women, 30 occasions out of 100 end up in binge drinking.

Alcohol-related harm

So what do we mean by alcohol related harm? Excessive alcohol consumption is a significant contributory factor in;

  • personal harms, which include accidents, injury, unprotected sex, aggressive behaviour, depression;
  • social harms including fights, assaults, violence, drink driving, relationship and marital difficulties and poor work performance;
  • and mortality caused by cirrhosis, cancers, suicide, homicide, alcohol dependency and alcohol poisoning.

It is this combination of high consumption levels and high rate of binge drinking that leads to greater alcohol related harm.  Alcohol related deaths have increased in Ireland over the last decade.  Chronic conditions specific to alcohol rose by 61% and acute conditions rose by a staggering 90%, which contrasts sharply with a decrease of -14% for all cause mortality.

Between 1992 and 2002, 14,223 people died in Ireland from five of the main alcohol related mortality causes – suicide, cancers, alcohol poisoning, liver cirrhosis and alcohol abuse. And that statistic excludes those who died on the road or drowned as a result of alcohol.

Alcohol continues to be a major contributor to the work load of those working in the health services.  I am aware of the high number of alcohol related incidents that the Accident and Emergency services in hospitals throughout the country have to treat, especially late at night and at weekends.

A study in treatment service demand in the Southern Health Board and South Eastern Health Board regions showed that over 70% of those treated reported alcohol as their main problem drug. Alcohol use during pregnancy is also a growing concern.

As I have said already, Irish people continue to be one of the highest consumers of alcohol in the world. And this comes at a cost. The harm experienced as a result of excessive drinking has personal, economic and social consequences. This harm is not limited to the individual drinker but also to those around them and to society. On a purely financial level, nearly €6 billion of personal income was spent on alcohol in Ireland in 2002.  That represents €1,942 for every adult over 15 years of age.

It is estimated that alcohol related harm cost Irish Society €2.65 billion in 2003, which is 2.6% of GNP, an increase of 12% from the last estimate. Therefore we are all paying for something which, for the most part, we believe to be someone else’s problem.

The €2.65 billion is just the economic cost. We also pay of course when a colleague fails to turn up for work, when a driver gets into a car having consumed alcohol and cannot make the sharp corner on the way home, the family pays when a member is aggressive or abusive. The list is endless.  We all pay one way or another.

The costs are many and varied.  The harms caused are many and varied.  Those responsible for finding solutions are many and varied.

Strategic Task Force

It was vital as Minister for Health and Children, that I acted to tackle this major public health issue. I established the Strategic Task Force on Alcohol under the Chairmanship of the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jim Kiely, whose remit is to recommend evidenced based measures to Government to prevent and reduce alcohol related harm in Ireland.

Progress since Interim Report

Since the Group’s Interim Report in 2002, we have made some inroads into tackling the problem. It gives me some satisfaction to see that, last year, there was a decline in alcohol consumption in Ireland for the first time in over sixteen years.   This was as a result of the implementation of one of the STFA’s recommendations from the Report of May 2002, which was for increased alcohol taxes on alcohol products.

Progress has been made also in a number of other areas from the measures recommended in the first Task Force report;

  • a three year alcohol awareness campaign took place which proved effective in raising awareness amongst the general public of alcohol as a public health issue,
  • the Road Traffic Act extended the grounds for requesting a breath specimen and represents a move to random breath testing,
  • the Government has also strengthened the licensing laws through the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003, which contains measures to counter drunkenness and disorderly conduct and to combat underage drinking.
  • legislation is being drafted by the Parliamentary Draftsman which aims to reduce the exposure of children to alcohol marketing.
  • a number of research projects have been undertaken to monitor and inform alcohol-policy decision making.

However, while we are seeing an improvement, it is only the beginning and much more needs to be done.

2nd STFA Report

It is appropriate that the responses in this report are many and varied to reflect the nature of the harms and the costs to society.  Having studied this report and in particular, the recommendations, I was pleased to see that the response is just that.  Different effective strategies, different sectors of society, different stakeholders are all incorporated to form one, cohesive, comprehensive, effective response.  The recommendations in this report incorporate the community, the workplace, parents, the Drinks Industry, youth organisations, the health service and the breadth of the recommendations are reflective of the fact that as a society we are all responsible.

The recommendations include building community action projects to enable communities to address alcohol related problems in their areas, providing support for families, providing professional training for those in contact with alcohol problems through their work.  It recommends that employers put in place guidelines for alcohol policies, it recommends restricting any further increase in the physical availability of alcohol, it recommends that national sporting bodies with high youth participation develop a proactive strategy to find an alternative to alcohol sponsorship, and increasing alcohol free alternatives.  It recommends putting in place early interventions in a variety of settings – primary care, hospitals, health clinics, courts, colleges, juvenile programmes. It recommends the development of responsible serving practices which discourage high risk drinking.

There are 78 recommendations in all based on international research evidence of what works in reducing alcohol related harm.  We can therefore say with certainty that the measures that are recommended in this report will be effective in addressing the problems associated with excessive consumption of alcohol in Ireland today.

We know what we need to do.  We need to change the culture in Ireland. We must cut down on the harm done to our society by excessive consumption of alcohol.  There is a huge task ahead of all of us to bring about this change.

The Task Force have made a very important start towards bringing about that change. The members of the Task Force have worked hard to provide my Department and the Government with tangible plans.  We now have two reports from the Task Force, which together contain a comprehensive range of effective recommendations and which provides a blue print for a co-ordinated framework for going forward to tackle alcohol problems in Ireland at national, regional and local level.

I intend to bring this report to Government to seek approval for the implementation of its recommendations. I know the Government is committed to tackling the problem and this is evidenced by alcohol being listed as one of the Special Initiatives of the Sustaining Progress Social Partnership Agreement.

I urge every public representative, public servant and medical expert, every relevant organisation and institution to examine this report and see where they can work toward implementing the recommendations.

Conclusion

I would like to thank all the members of the Task Force, and in particular, their Chair Dr Jim Kiely, for their professional dedication in drawing up this Report.  It is clear from the Report that it was given the utmost consideration and commitment by the Group’s members and again thanks to all involved for an end result which has culminated in very worthwhile and robust Report.