TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern yesterday emphatically dismissed findings that suggested more teenagers were on drugs in Ireland than in almost any other country in the world.
Mr Ahern said that a teenager who “sampled” one drink or smoked “one fag” could not be classified as an alcoholic or a compulsive smoker.
“They are not on drugs. They are not junkies or winos,” he said.
In a robust defence of his Government’s record on children, Mr Ahern said the findings of The State of the Nation’s Children — published yesterday by the Minister for Children, Brian Lenihan — were not new but were four years old and contained no new information.
He also suggested the results of the survey carried out in schools throughout Europe had been distorted by the media, which ignored the positive findings.
He disputed Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny’s interpretation of the results.
“I agree with Deputy Kenny about the fact that 40% of teenagers have experimented with drugs — let us get the word right, it is ‘experimented’. If a child of 14 tries one fag or one drink, it does not make him or her a compulsive smoker or an alcoholic,” he said.
Elsewhere, he said: “The report contained some very good news about children. For example, Irish children rank second among WHO countries in terms of being physically active and involved in recreation and sport.”
Mr Kenny raised the issue during Leaders Questions in the Dáil.
“We have known for a long time that young teenagers are regularly getting hammered on drink. We know now from a report being published today that they are also getting high on drugs.
“The report shows that four out of 10 children under 15 years of age have sampled drugs. That makes us number three in the world for trying out drugs. When it comes to girls, tragically, we are number one in the world for trying out drugs,” Mr Kenny said.
Mr Lenihan conceded there were grounds for concern, though he argued that children were generally happy.
Commenting after the publication of the report yesterday, the minister said the study would allow the Government to better understand issues involving children and assess the effectiveness of existing policy on their lives.
However, Barnardos said there were a number of children in Ireland today whose future prospects looked grim, and that not enough was being done to prevent the development of a “two-tier childhood”.
Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay said one-in-nine children were living in consistent poverty, according to the latest figures.
“We are developing a two-tier childhood,” he said. “If you are in the one in nine children who don’t have enough food, or access to healthcare, then things are lousy — and getting worse.”
Jillian Van Turnhout of the Children’s Rights Alliance said there needed to be more focus on the parents of children living in poverty, and that there had been “a series of failures” that had seen child poverty figures “moving in the wrong direction”.
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