Minister for Health (Deputy Simon Harris): Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to finally be here to introduce the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill to this House. The Bill has been the subject of much discussion and debate and it is clear from the clinical community and many advocacy groups that the Bill is badly needed. I have had excellent engagement with Members of Seanad Éireann, which has passed the Bill in full, and I now look forward to further constructive debate on this landmark public health legislation in this House.
With this Bill we are for the first time endeavouring as an Oireachtas to address alcohol as a public health matter. We have successfully used public health legislation to progress a health agenda in this country in areas such as tobacco for many years. We have never before done so in respect of alcohol and that must change now. This is why I and the Taoiseach in his comments this week have been so clear that this legislation must pass and that it can make a real and meaningful difference to our health service and, most importantly, the health and well-being of our people. In this context, the overall objective of the Bill is to contribute to the reduction of the harmful use of alcohol in our country.
Alcohol consumption in our country is not low. Let us debunk that myth. Ireland is the fourth heaviest-drinking nation in the OECD in terms of the quantity of alcohol consumed. Recently published figures from the Central Statistics Office show that Irish people between the ages of 18 and 24 are top in the EU for binge drinking, that is, drinking six or more drinks on one occasion. Ireland also ranks joint third for binge drinking in a World Health Organization analysis of 194 countries. These are not the statistics Deputies will have heard from the drinks industry in its endeavours to scupper this legislation. Alcohol consumption in our country is not falling either. In 2015 it was at 10.9 l of pure alcohol per capita but figures from the Office of the Revenue Commissioners indicate that our consumption levels increased in 2016 to 11.46 l. Let us hope that is another myth debunked.
The more we drink, the higher our risk of developing life-changing illnesses such as alcoholic liver diseases and alcohol-related cancers. A 2012 analysis found that one in eight breast cancers in Ireland in the years 2001 to 2010, inclusive, was attributable to alcohol and that alcohol was responsible for at least 83 deaths every month in 2011, so this is no small public health issue.
When it comes to our children, the most recent European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs found that seven out of ten 15 to 16 year olds had already drunk alcohol and more than three out of ten had been drunk in the past. The same survey found that a quarter of Irish girls and nearly a fifth of Irish boys reported having been injured or involved in an accident due to alcohol. Research studies show consistently that exposure to alcohol advertising is associated with an increased likelihood that children will start to drink or, if they already do so, will drink in greater quantities. This Bill sets out measures to create an environment in which our children are not exposed to alcohol products or advertising of those products daily. The importance of these measures was recognised by the Seanad such that it agreed an amendment to the Long Title of the Bill. This now includes a specific reference to the restrictions on advertising and sponsorship as they relate to children. I thank the Seanad for that amendment and I think it further improves the Bill.
I think we can all agree that it is our duty to protect the children of our country, but should we leave it to adults to decide on their own drinking? I am clear in my view that we must all take personal responsibility for our own actions. Of that there is no doubt. However, when the decisions of the individual impact negatively and substantially on all of us as a society, including on the Irish public health service and social services, we cannot abdicate our responsibility to protect our citizens and public services. The cost of time spent in hospital for alcohol-related conditions in 2012 was €1.5 billion, or the equivalent of €1 for every €10 spent on public health. I know Deputy Kelleher and I could think of many ways in which we could better spend that money in the delivery of public health services. If we can reduce alcohol consumption, we can reduce these costs, and many of us would have no difficulty finding alternative uses for any moneys saved in that regard. In 2013, alcohol-related discharges accounted for more than 160,000 bed days in public hospitals, that is, almost 3.6% of all bed days in the Irish health service being used for problems that the measures in this Bill are designed to address and mitigate. If we as legislators can act to prevent these beds from being needed because of the harmful use of alcohol, I believe we should do so. One of the primary objectives of this Bill is to lower our consumption of alcohol in order that the human and financial costs of misuse are reduced. The Bill aims to reduce consumption per capita to 9.1 l of pure alcohol by 2020, to delay the initiation of alcohol consumption by children and young people and to reduce the harms caused by the misuse of alcohol. Let us be honest with one another: the Bill will not change our culture overnight. However, it will raise awareness among all of us about the risks associated with alcohol and will provide for practical changes to protect our children and all our citizens, which can only be a good thing.
Source: Oireachtas.ie, 06/02/18