Twelve months ago I gave a presentation on the subject of youth drug and alcohol abuse to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children. I highlighted the huge pressures facing Ireland’s youth, including peer pressure, bullying, unemployment and emigration, all within a national atmosphere of despair over our collective future. I focused on the widespread culture of binge drinking in Ireland, which appears to be often ignored, accepted or normalised by many parents, publicans, politicians and law enforcers.
I pointed to the entrenched culture of alcohol abuse at the heart of Irish life and the fact we know this is damaging our health, our society and our economy.
Research tells us alcohol abuse adversely affects rates of mental ill health and suicide, road accidents, A E admissions, workplace participation, public disorder offences, rape, domestic violence, and family cohesion. HSE statistics show alcohol is estimated to cost the economy €3.7 billion per year.
I called on politicians to show courage and leadership. Central to this is facing down the powerful drinks industry, groups like British multinational Diageo, and lobbyists from the FAI, GAA and IRFU who embrace alcohol sponsorship.
One year later, and following a summer of alcohol-fuelled controversies, there has been some progress in the debate but little in the way of meaningful action. A few months ago Minister of State Róisín Shortall made reasonable proposals to restrict drink advertising, phase out sponsorship of sporting and culture events by 2016, introduce minimum pricing and impose a responsibility levy to help change our unhealthy drinking culture. Despite Government promises to tackle the issue, Ms Shortall’s proposals didn’t make it to Cabinet, with Fine Gael ministers claiming the proposals were too strict. The issue was due back on the table in September but many fear it may be swept back under the carpet.
As the country prepares for Diageo’s annual “Arthur’s Day celebration”, I would like to repeat my call for political courage, leadership and action.
Elected representatives must unify and demonstrate vision and integrity on an issue that is a core part of our dysfunction as a nation. We need to develop the national debate about our drinking habits, to ask on a deeper level why we abuse alcohol so much, and to explore alternative ways and places to socialise and celebrate. Ireland can be a great nation, but it is time to wise up and lose our “drunken Paddy” reputation.
Politicians, if they truly have the best interests of our people at heart, must face down the drinks industry. It is time to work together to create a proud, strong and healthy nation that realises our enormous potential.