Alcohol Bill should prioritise citizens’ health over drinks industry’s profits

Our creaking health system is overwhelmed by our unhealthy relationship with alcohol, writes Alison O’Connor.

Alcohol Bill should prioritise citizens’ health over drinks industry’s profits

IT hasn’t quite reached the hyperbolic heights of the hysterical debate that surrounded the smoking ban more than a decade ago, but quite a frenzy has built up around the Public Health Alcohol bill.

One Leinster House source long familiar with such things described the lobbying that’s going on as one of the most intense they had ever experienced: “It’s a very, very dirty campaign.”

There’s talk of Oireachtas members being flooded with emails attempting to influence them, of TDs and senators being collared by lobbyists as they go about their daily business, and of our elected representatives feeling the only safe place to hide out is the Leinster House basement.

So the pro-drinks industry crowd, with the big bucks behind them, are prowling the corridors, while the anti-alcohol medical crowd, said to be “fundamental extremists, wishing to ban any debate or proposed amendment” are moving in packs and being accused of attempting to quash all dissent. It will be interesting to look at the new register of lobbyists, when it is next published in the new year, to see who was chatting to whom.

On Wednesday, a bunch of vintners travelled up from the country. They gathered in the Dáil bar eager to tell their elected representatives that as a group they are delighted with the proposal to remove alcohol from open view in shops, and with minimum unit pricing proposals to address the sale of booze for pocket money prices. They’ve seen too much of their business drift towards the cheaper alcohol available in shops. As it happens, their views coincide with the medical crowd, who believe that people drink less in the regulated pub environment.

As we all know, the furore surrounds curtains and the dastardly plan to get retailers to take alcohol out of plain sight and behind some sort of a screen. Actually that is just one part of this really important bill, which also includes restrictions on advertising and labelling. But the anti gang have cleverly grabbed hold of the curtains aspect, dubbing it a burka ban, and squealing with outrage. Now when you consider that, at one point, back in time, it was proposed that retailers were going to actually have to structurally separate alcohol, which would have involved a degree of construction in many cases, the curtains issue is truly a Trojan Horse.

It defies belief that retailers would claim it will cost them too much money to move the alcohol away from where it currently resides, such as next to the milk or bars of chocolate or sliced pan, where it is normalised and made seem like an everyday product. As we all know, over the next few weeks we will be tripping over crates and six packs in the local shop and supermarket as the Christmas drinking season gets into full swing.

It is worth referring back again to those tobacco restrictions and the fact that packs of cigarettes are no longer on view in shops and the retail world has not collapsed in a heap. It is probably not surprising that the name Musgraves keeps cropping up with those involved in this debate. The Irish company is essentially a wholesaler that supplies groceries, and alcohol, to a countrywide network of franchisees who run its retail brands. These brands include SuperValu and Centra, so they have a lot of skin in this game. By all accounts, they are behind every corner of this discussion.

So let’s take this back to brass tacks. The purpose of this important piece of legislation is to try and get people to drink less alcohol, especially those who are particularly vulnerable to buying it cheaply in shops. Of course, it would be better to debate this in a mature and open manner but, in fairness to the health lobby, it feels the alcohol industry has been stealing a march for years. They worry about being outgunned with expertise, tactics, and resources, just as happened so often in the past. It may seem an obvious point to make, but their concerns centre on the health and well being of Irish citizens, as opposed to profit and the bottom line.

The alcohol industry is entirely within its rights to express its unhappiness, but those concerns have to be weighed against the fact that our creaking health system is overwhelmed by our unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

On Wednesday night a delegation from the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland (RCPI) addressed Fine Gael TDs and senators, including junior health minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, who is doing a fine job of stewarding the legislation despite the obstacles being strewn in her way.

How could the RCPI not have made a compelling case to the Fine Gael Oireachtas members when they were explaining how three people die in Ireland everyday due to alcohol? Every night, 1,500 Irish hospital beds are occupied due to alcohol. The party members were told of the pressure on those hospital beds, and the surge in people presenting with liver problems due to alcohol use. How could any health service can sustain this?

How could a politician stand in the Dáil in the future and complain about a crowded A&E departments in a particular constituency without supporting this legislation?

This week in the Dáil, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin stood up and quite rightly called for more counselling services following an increase in suicides in Cork. He said the rate of suicide in Cork, in city and county, was almost twice the national average and, over the past two weeks, up to 16 people had died by suicide. But this must also be put in the context of alcohol being a factor in more than half of all suicides and over one third of cases of deliberate self harm. Maeve Skelly, consultant gastroenterologist at University Hospital Limerick and part of the RCPI delegation, told TDs and senators how her hospital regularly has the highest trolley numbers in the country and how access to hospital beds in the Mid-West was directly related to the number of patients who are under their care with alcohol-related disease and, in turn, how the widespread sale of alcohol is associated with her patients problems and hospital admissions. It is not that hard to join these dots and to see the massively destructive relationship so many Irish people have with booze.

Dr Skelly told them of her direct experience of the devastation that these illnesses causes to families, how many of these patients arrived at end-stage liver disease without ever having been a person who did their drinking in pubs. Imagine that almost all Dr Skelly’s female patients with alcohol liver disease, and many of her male patients do most or all of their drinking via the off-trade, outside of pubs.

Now compare that fact to the erection of a pair of curtains.

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