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Public Health Alcohol Bill

I welcome Senator O'Mahony's remarks about the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. It is great to see movement on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill considering it has been seven years in the making. Back in December 2009, alcohol was included in a national substance misuse strategy. In those seven years, we have failed our fellow citizens by allowing alcohol misuse to be an acceptable part of our culture. This Bill will go a long way towards helping to change our attitudes and relationships with alcohol. On a daily basis, I see the mental health issues, devastation and heartbreak caused to families all over this country. We must remember that we are enacting this Bill to protect them and future generations. It is important to know how much we are drinking if we are trying to stay within the low-risk weekly guidelines for alcohol consumption and it becomes even more important to track our alcohol intake when one considers that the most comprehensive survey of alcohol consumption ever carried out in Ireland revealed that we underestimate what we drink by about 60%.

Alcohol marketing, including advertising, sponsorship and other forms of promotion, increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol and drink more if they are already using alcohol. Young people’s drinking patterns have a direct effect on their health, development and welfare. Therefore, reducing children’s exposure to alcohol marketing is a child protection issue. Yet every day, in numerous ways and through numerous media, children and young people in Ireland are continually exposed to positive, risk-free images of alcohol and its use. Due to a lack of effective regulations, young people are poorly protected from these sophisticated and powerful influences on their drinking behaviour and expectations. They are bombarded with positive images of alcohol through the marketing of brands and products. In effect, the alcohol industry has become a child's primary educator on alcohol. Marketing can shape youth culture by creating and sustaining expectations and norms about how to achieve social, sporting or sexual success; how to celebrate; how to relax; and how to belong. The failure to protect children from exposure to alcohol marketing is associated with earlier and increased alcohol consumption. Restricting advertisements for alcohol products to content about the nature of products will mean that advertisements will be less likely to glamorise alcohol or make it appealing to children as they will no longer see alcohol products aligned with physical performance, personal success, social success and a variety of other positive outcomes.

Minimum unit pricing is a targeted measure designed to stop strong alcohol being sold at very low prices in the off-trade, particularly supermarkets, where alcohol is frequently used as a "loss leader" and sold below cost. The easy and widespread availability of such cheap alcohol has contributed to a dramatic shift in our alcohol purchasing and consumption habits from pubs towards the off-trade sector, which now accounts for the majority of alcohol sold in Ireland. Minimum unit pricing is able to target cheaper alcohol relative to its strength because the price is determined by and directly proportionate to the amount of pure alcohol in the drink. Minimum unit pricing would be effective in reducing alcohol consumption; alcohol harms, including deaths, hospital admissions, crime and workplace absences; and the costs associated with those harms. The analysis estimated that with a €1 minimum unit pricing, alcohol-attributable deaths would be reduced by approximately 197 per year in Ireland after 20 years, by which time the full effects of the policy will be seen due to the time lag involved with many serious alcohol-related illnesses, such as liver cirrhosis and alcohol-related cancers. We would also see almost 6,000 fewer hospital admissions per year and a reduction in alcohol-fuelled crime and workplace absences while the total societal value of these reductions in health, crime and workplace harms is estimated at €1.7 billion.

The alcohol companies will lobby to change the core elements of this Bill. We need to listen to words of warning from Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, WHO, when in April 2013, she stated that he development of alcohol policies is the sole prerogative of national authorities. She said that in the view of WHO, the alcohol industry has no role in the formula of alcohol policies, which must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests. I would welcome the enactment of the Bill by both Houses without the undue influence of the alcohol industry. We need to do this for the well-being of our fellow citizens, for the future of our country and to ensure a reduction of the impact that alcohol has on families across the country.

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