Alex White promises action on alcohol plan

Wed, Oct 3, 2012, 01:00

MINISTER OF State for Health Alex White has said he will “bring proposals on an alcohol policy to Government in the very new future”.

In his first address to the Dáil as Minister of State, he acknowledged the progress of his predecessor Róisín Shortall in advancing the national drugs strategy. Mr White, who was flanked in the chamber by Minister for Health James Reilly, said he was “confident my colleagues in Government will support the timely finalisation and subsequent implementation of the national substance misuse strategy”.

The time “has come for us to rethink our relationship with alcohol”, he said, acknowledging that “Irish people drink in a more dangerous way than nearly any other country” and “ultimately 1.5 million Irish drinkers drink in a harmful pattern”.

He was responding to a motion on addiction services by the technical group. Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan challenged the new Minister of State and the Government to “take on” the very powerful lobby of the drinks industry and sporting organisations taking their sponsorship. She compared asking drug barons to sponsor sports events with the financial support offered by drinks companies.

Taking what she called an “extreme example”, the Dublin Central TD said “we could ask one of the drugs barons in Dublin or Cork or Limerick would they like to sponsor an event. But yet we ask the drinks industry . . . a much more harmful drug at times, because more people are dying from alcohol-related illnesses than all the other drugs combined”.

Ms O’Sullivan was opening a private member’s debate on addiction services, which urged the State to treat drugs use primarily as a health issue rather than a criminal one and to provide resources for that. The motion also called for the Government to make available some of the assets from the Criminal Assets Bureau to counter the impact of drug-related crime and for the debate to be opened on the decriminalisation of drugs.

The motion from the technical group also called for more residential rehabilitation places for addicts. Ms O’Sullivan said methadone had a stabilising effect but people were being left on it far too long, because “it’s much cheaper to have someone on methadone than to look for the cost to have them in rehab or in a residential centre”. She added that for every person in addiction, “there are at least six to 10 people affected by that addiction”.

Independent Donegal South-West TD Thomas Pringle, who described alcohol-related problems as the “number one issue in Ireland”, said when he was a child, sweets were on display beside the checkout in shops. “Now we see the off-licence on display beside the checkouts to encourage people to buy their drink just at the point where they’re buying their groceries.”

He said alcohol-related problems cost the exchequer an estimated €3.2 billion annually. Alcohol-related crime cost about €1.2 billion a year, he said, and alcohol was a factor in 97 per cent of public order offences, more than 50 per cent of murder cases and 76 per cent of rape cases.

The Minister of State acknowledged the problems with alcohol, which he said was responsible for 88 deaths every month in 2008. It was a factor in half of all suicide and self-harm cases. Every night 2,000 beds in Irish acute hospitals were occupied due to alcohol-related illnesses.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher said the national substance misuse strategy report had to be acted on quickly “because we are beginning to lose another generation”. Too much alcohol was being consumed in a binge-type atmosphere, he said.