Alcohol Consumption

[Speaking in the Seanad during Second Stage of the Fianna Fail Bill – Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Fund Bill 2014]

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I was just doing a quick mental inventory of the number of people I know personally who have taken their lives over the years, and I could make a list of 12. Suicide is a common problem, a tragedy for those concerned and an unbelievable tragedy for the bereaved. Anything we can do to highlight the issue and tackle the problem should be given priority. This innovative Bill is an attempt to ensure that much-needed services are developed for suicide prevention through the use of a novel funding formula.

All across our health service, we have critical deficiencies. This morning, we discussed patients who are being denied multiple sclerosis drugs that would decrease their pain and save money for the State. Patients are told they cannot have life-saving obesity surgery, although it could not only save their lives but save the State money. Cancer drugs have been denied to patients and breast reconstruction operations have been put on what may be indefinite hold for younger women who have had mastectomies for breast cancer. We have waiting lists for children who are going deaf and who need to see ear specialists. The longer this surgery is delayed and the longer they must wait for the appropriate remedial services, the greater the personal and economic consequences for these people.

We have problems everywhere and could whinge about them and say they are not our fault and talk about legacy issues and the rotten and miserable set of cards the current administration was dealt on coming into power.

The Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, came in with a reformer’s brief and zeal with good ideas for health service reforms but has found his hands tied by economic circumstances which occurred without his responsibility. If we find clever ways of raising moneys to deal with problems, then we should pursue them. There is no point in putting them on the long finger against some future nirvana where the wonders of economic recovery, universal health care and an integrated approach to all aspects of preventive medicine will kick in.

Maybe that will happen. However, my legislation, limited in its purpose, aimed to introduce a ban on smoking in cars in which children are present became glued up in treacle-like bureaucracy for two years. After a year and a half of going nowhere, we were shamed into doing something about it by the British when, more or less on the spur of the moment, they adopted our idea and rushed it through both their ancient Houses of Parliament in a short time. This leads me to believe that not supporting this Bill because we might get something better in the future is not a good strategy. Governments can easily get distracted, electoral considerations can get in the way, priorities can shift but, meanwhile, we have an opportunity to tackle this heavy burden of suicide with this legislation. It is clear from the number of psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists and support services we have that we are not doing enough.

In addition to this welcome opportunity to raise moneys for much needed suicide prevention services, it makes sense for us to stop to think about our relationship with alcohol itself. Any measure that puts a tax on a product also acts as a disincentive to consume it. We, as a society, must be absolutely unambiguous on the fact we need to drink less. We, as a society, drink approximately five times more litres of alcohol per person per annum than we did in the 1960s.

Discretionary alcohol spending decreased on what it was a few years ago at the height of the Celtic tiger but we are still way above where we were in the 1960s. Despite our national reputation, we actually had a relatively low burden of national alcohol consumption then. Perhaps the figure was distorted because of the unusually large number of people who for social, cultural, religious reasons did not drink alcohol at all. In many other countries it would be typical where one did not have a drinking problem to enjoy a casual glass of wine or two.

All the following would happen if for some reason the good Lord Jesus appeared to us all tomorrow morning and told us to stop drinking. Trust me, I speak as someone who likes a drink as much as the next person and probably more than some. Liver disease would become extremely rare. Pancreatitis would go down. Cancers of the mouth, tongue, tonsil, larynx, pharynx, oesophagus, pancreas, liver, colon and breast would all decline dramatically in frequency and the burden on our health service and mortality rates would also decline. Hospital waiting lists would be slashed.

Accident and emergency departments would become far less busy. Overall, there would be much less spending on health. There would be decreased violence, domestic violence, rape and unplanned pregnancy. There would be fewer murders and road deaths, as well as foetal abnormalities. There would be far more discretionary spending available to families to spend on their children’s clothes, education, food, etc. Suicide rates would also go down.

I have been accused of having a somewhat inconsistent approach to the various substances with which we have a problem in our country. The inconsistency stems from the fact I do not believe there is a one-size-fits-all approach to all of the different problems with which we need to deal. Tobacco is an absolutely special case which we need to eradicate. We need the tobacco companies to be put out of business and that those who sell it to understand they are participating in an international conspiracy to deal death to young addicts. That means everyone from the mom-and-pop shop on the street corner to the garage must realise they are part of that deal. Tobacco is a special case.

Taken to its extreme, people say that if one wants to eliminate tobacco so much, why not limit junk food. Junk food is, per se, not bad for one; excessive consumption is. If a demented philanthropist sent containers of McDonald’s Big Macs and fries to a Darfur refugee camp, he would save lives. It is the excess use of such foods is the problem.

Alcohol falls in the middle. There is no doubt that it should be society’s goal to greatly decrease alcohol consumption to 1960 levels and deal with the minority who have tremendous alcohol problems. Taxation affects behaviour. We do it all the time through forms of social engineering trying to persuade people to have smaller cars, opt for diesel engines, not to smoke cigarettes. It is justifiable for us to adopt a similar approach to alcohol consumption.

I will be supporting Senator MacSharry’s innovative Bill. It looks at two great social problems in this country, attempting to use revenues from one to reduce the other but, in the process, will actually reduce both. In the unlikely event that we get to debate this Bill on Committee Stage, I will propose some amendments. For one, I do not buy into this theory that alcohol purchased in a shop or garage forecourt is somehow more dangerous than that purchased in a pub. Different people can abuse alcohol in different ways. If we are going to deal with the problem of alcohol abuse in this fashion, we need to deal with it consistently across different sectors.

One Response to “Alcohol Consumption”
  1. Eileen OSullivan says:

    Wow, an all encompassing article!!! Well said for all matters covered.


    Sent from my iPad


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