We must legislate on alcohol, it exacts such a toll on society

In his weekly column, Michael Pattwell looks at The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill currently being debated in the Oireachtas
We must legislate on alcohol, it exacts such a toll on society

TAKING A TOLL: It is acknowledged that factors arising from alcohol cost the State €2.7billion every year

AT the very outset, I have to put my hands up and declare that I don’t drink alcohol. There is no reason why I don’t, except that I never got around to it AND whenever I tasted alcoholic drinks I didn’t really like them.

I didn’t “get around to it” because I was always too busy doing other things that interested me more. It is as simple as that.

On the other hand, I would have to say that I had nothing against somebody having a few drinks and as my own children grew up I never made a fuss about them having a drink, once they reached the legal age. As far as I was concerned it just wasn’t for me.

Perhaps my attitude to drinking alcohol may not, since I read up on some stuff about its effects, be quite as benign now.

All of this came to mind in relation to The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill that is currently being debated in the Oireachtas — the first time that our Government will legislate for alcohol as a public health issue. That, in itself, is a notable occasion.

So many of our public representatives seem to be against it that I am quite concerned. Is this concern as a result of lobbying? If so has all this lobbying been disclosed, as is now required by law? I wonder!

Alcohol misuse is a serious public health problem. That is a given and we all accept that. It appears now, however, that alcohol use (without the ‘mis’) is also cause for concern when it comes to health.

In a letter to newspapers last week The Irish Heart Foundation declared strong support for the bill. They concentrate their reasons on the harmful effects of alcohol in the area of cardiovascular disease, especially on the heart attack victim or the stroke patient. They also suggest that 1,500 hospital beds (I have seen a much higher figure for this, up to 2,000) are occupied by patients with alcohol-related problems

About €1.5 billion was spent on alcohol-related hospital discharges in 2012 (€1 for every €10 spent on public health).

There is a huge need to reduce hospital waiting lists and to take people off trollies in overcrowded emergency departments. For example, it cannot be right that a young person with severe scoliosis, in a spine that is still forming and growing, should be many months waiting for treatment whilst somebody with self-induced illness due to the consumption of alcohol occupies a much needed space in a hospital.

We in Ireland have a high-profile relationship with alcohol. This is quite worrying when it seems to be quite common and even acceptable that we should decide to go out of a night to get “scuttered”, “mortal” or “wasted”. Some people even boast about it the following day.

The drinks industry is no stranger to lobbying and vehemently opposed to the proposed legislation. Much of their argument is based on the amount of tax, both excise duty and VAT, that is collected from the sale of alcoholic drinks. In fact, as well as opposing the terms of the current bill they have long sought a reduction in the level of taxation on drink.

Ireland’s alcohol excise duty, they argue, is 150% higher than 24 of the other 27 EU member states and our high excise tax is “anti-competitive”, “punitive” and “completely out of kilter with our European peers”.

Industry spokespeople claim that the high levels of excise are a tax on a sector that contributes significantly to the economy in terms of jobs and tourism, particularly in rural Ireland. They claim the drinks industry and hospitality sector play a critical role in Irish tourism, with the sector credited among the major attractions for overseas visitors.

It appears that Ireland’s drinks industry employs 92,000 people nationwide, with the wider hospitality sector employing 204,000 people, or 10% of the Irish workforce.

A spokesperson suggested: “The industry is a high-growth sector in Ireland, driving investment, innovation and job creation, with nascent distilleries and microbreweries being created which are valuable in terms of exports and tourism.”

I tried to research how much tax revenue, excise and VAT, is collected each year on alcohol sales but I failed to find the figure. I do, however, acknowledge that it is large, probably running into the billions.

The question, however, must be asked, does that justify the consequences that follow from both alcohol abuse and even more moderate use of alcohol? It mustn’t be forgotten that alcohol-related harm in Ireland currently claims three lives a day. Can any amount of tax revenue or any number of jobs created justify the loss of even one life? When it comes to 1,000 lives every year the answer to that question must be, No!

Whatever the income from alcohol taxes, it is acknowledged that factors arising from alcohol cost the State an estimated €3.7 billion annually, putting a particular strain on our already overburdened health services, where, as I already stated, up to 2,000 beds are occupied by people with alcohol-related illnesses every day.

Alcohol also plays a major role in a range of other very serious issues for society, such as crime, suicide and child welfare. The harm caused by our drinking extends far beyond the individual drinker. It impacts on families, their own or other people’s, communities, schools, hospitals and businesses throughout Ireland.

Liver disease (often caused by alcohol consumption) rates are increasing rapidly in Ireland and the greatest level of increase is among 15-to-34-year-olds. These, historically, had the lowest rates of liver disease.

Alcohol is a factor in one in four traumatic brain injuries and a factor in half of all suicides in Ireland.

Around 7500 people enter treatment for alcohol use every year and, according to The Road Safety Authority, drink-driving is a factor in two out of five deaths on Irish roads.

Society pays a huge toll for the misuse of alcohol. It is a significant contributory factor in many cases of child neglect and parental drinking has been identified as a key child welfare issue; it is a factor in many assaults, including sexual assaults, rape, domestic violence and manslaughter; it is a factor in the vast majority of public order offences and at an individual level it leads to people feeling unsafe in public places, causes problems with relationships and financial difficulties and causes or worsens mental health difficulties.

The Irish Cancer Society says alcohol is a known cause of seven types of cancer. The chance of getting cancer will be reduced by either avoiding alcohol or only drinking a little. Even a small amount can, however, increase the risk of getting cancer. It’s not just people who have a ‘drinking problem’ who are affected but the more one drinks, the higher the risk.

Alcohol is a known cause of cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), oesophagus (foodpipe), breast, liver, bowel and some research even suggests there may also be a link between heavy drinkers the and risk of pancreatic cancer.

Compared to women who don’t drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer. Experts estimate that the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10% for each additional drink women regularly have each day.

It is thought that alcohol causes different types of cancer in different ways because our bodies break down alcohol into acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical that can damage DNA and stop our cells from repairing the damage. The breakdown of alcohol in our bodies can also generate harmful molecules called reactive oxygen species. These molecules can damage DNA and proteins.

Alcohol weakens the body’s ability to break down and absorb a variety of nutrients that may protect against cancer, including vitamin A, folate, vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin E.

It increases levels of the hormone oestrogen, which increases the risk of breast cancer. A high proportion of breast cancers are related directly to the consumption of alcohol.

All types of alcohol increase the risk of cancer, including red wine. It is the alcohol itself that does the damage. It does not matter if it is in the form of beer, wine or spirits but the risk of cancer can be limited by drinking no more than one standard drink a day, for a woman and two standard drinks per day for a man.

The relationship between young people and alcohol is of huge concern. A study of 15-16 year old students in Ireland found, inter alia, that:

Around three-quarters of students had tried alcohol

Nearly a third of had engaged in binge-drinking in the past month.

27% had their first experience of alcohol at the age of 13 or younger

77% felt it was ‘fairly easy’ or ‘very easy’ to obtain alcohol.

The resistence to the bill is worrying. To those elected representatives who are campaigning against it, I say, look at the facts, decide whether a life really has a monetory value and do the right thing.

Contact Michael at pattwellsverdict@eircom.net

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