Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Counting the cost of alcohol harm: crunch time for Europe's politicians

In Alcohol Awareness Week the harm caused by alcohol is under scrutiny, being signalled by Global Risks as part of 'a global risk equal in cost to the current global financial crisis'.  But politicians under pressure from vested interests are proving slow to act.  As the architect of Ireland's disastrous deregulation of alcohol (and banking), former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern once said:  "Now what we are endeavouring to do is we know what the outstanding issues are, we know that we could argue forever about the rights and the wrongs".   Where alcohol is concerned, the outstanding issues and the rights and wrongs are very clear, so the time for 'arguing forever' is over.  Bucking the trend, incoming Health Minister Roisin Shortall is courageously promising something different.

Fiona Ryan AAI and Minister Roisin Shortall at the Where's the Harm? conference

We must, she says, tackle the issue of alcohol in Ireland head on "in a real and meaningful way".  In the last month she has promised to address the key issue of minimum pricing, discussed the harm to children of parental drinking, and promised to put alcohol in its rightful place at the heart of a national substance abuse strategy.  This week, Alcohol Awareness Week, the Minister promised to look at “the question of minimum pricing to remove that dirt cheap element from the market.”  On 16th November she supported the Alcohol Action Ireland conference 'Alcohol. Where's the Harm?' by presenting the opening address.

Where's The Harm?

The harm is everywhere, it turns out, and very costly in every sense of the word .  The conference focused on crime in particular.  Academic Sean Byrne, author of the HSE study "Costs to Society of Problem Alcohol Use in Ireland", told delegates that "€319 million is spent by three justice agencies on crime linked to alcohol, €191m is spent by An Garda Síochána, €51m is spent by the Prison Service and €77m is spent by the Courts Service.  Overall "the €319m represents 13% of the total Department of Justice budget", and as The Irish Examiner reported "the cost to the exchequer of responding to and dealing with the consequences of alcohol could be €1.6 billion per year".

60% suffer as a result of someone's drinking

But the personal cost of alcohol crime tells an even sadder story.   Discussing a survey conducted in September by Behaviour and Attitudes and based on interviews with 1,000 people over the age of 16, Alcohol Action Ireland director Fiona Ryan revealed to the conference that 'almost 60 per cent of people had been intimidated, frightened or physically assaulted as a result of someone else’s drinking.. and almost one in ten people had been assaulted or had a family member who had been assaulted by someone under the influence of alcohol'. 
"Some 45 per cent of people said they had gone out of their way to avoid drunk people in a public space, while 22 per cent had felt unsafe in a public space due to someone’s drinking. Some 20 per cent had been kept awake by drunk people outside their home, and 18 per cent had felt unsafe on public transport".
And Sean Ryan's crime figures are an under-reporting of the issue. "When they had been assaulted, 44 per cent said they did not report the assault” Ms Ryan said, blaming a culture that too readily accepts alcohol and its problems as part of 'normal' life.

Suicide is another shocking aspect of alcohol harm.  Minister Shortall told the Irish Times,“we have a serious problem with suicide in this country. It is probably the biggest problem facing our young people.  In over half the cases of suicide, alcohol is a key factor".   Young people are also in danger from other alcohol related harms as shown in the recently released HRB statistics for alcohol abuse, which show a 40% increase in the number of people seeking help for addiction, and a huge rise of 150% amongst young people in particular looking for treatment.

80% of rapists were drunk

Cliona Saidlear of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland  informed delegates that alcohol is also implicated heavily in rape and other acts of sexual violence.  The Rape & Justice in Ireland study of 596 DPP files on adult rape cases found that:
"77% of suspects had consumed alcohol on the date of the offence, 41% of suspects were severely intoxicated, 80% of complainants had consumed alcohol around the time of the offence and 90% of complainants had consumed ‘binge’ levels of 7 standard drinks".
But the danger of being raped by someone is added to by the states failure to prosecute when the victim is also drunk.  One third of those who did not report rape 'did so because they had consumed alcohol at the time (voluntarily and involuntarily)' and of the cases received in 2005 the DPP prosecuted 'only a third' because the ‘reliability of the complainants’ account was 'undermined by high levels of intoxication'. As Ms. Saidlear concluded "Irish drinking culture is one that supports a toxic mix of alcohol and sexual violence".

Equal in cost to the current global financial crisis

Culture aside, the core issues of regulation lie with governments to fix.  While the Irish government ponders the 'reputational damage' done to Ireland by its financial disaster, it is not unique in Europe in facing a major social and economic crisis with alcohol.  The World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Risks Report identifies alcohol as a prime cause of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and 'these are the second most severe threat to the global economy in terms of likelihood and potential economic loss.  NCDs are a global risk equal in cost to the current global financial crisis'.

The current EU Alcohol Strategy is due to end in 2012.  This week 72 European NGO's called for a new and 'comprehensive Alcohol Policy Strategy'.   In an open letter to Ministers of Health across Europe they wrote that:
Alcohol is the world’s number one risk factor for ill-health and premature death amongst the 25-59 year old age group, a core of the working age population. Europe is the heaviest drinking region of the world. Consumption levels in some countries are around 2.5 times higher than the global average (WHO 2009). Alarmingly 43% among 15-16 year old European students reported heavy binge drinking during the past 30 days (ESPAD 2007) and alcohol is the single biggest cause of death among young men of age 16 to 24.
The Committee on National Alcohol Policy and Action is meeting on 17th November and signatories urge experts to request the European Commission for a European Alcohol Strategy 2013 – 2020.  As Mariann Skar (European Alcohol Policy Alliance Secretary General) puts it:
"Alcohol use is a problem across Europe which requires a comprehensive, targeted and action oriented response... Europe is still the heaviest drinking region in the world. It is our shared European problem that needs a collective solution"’
Let's hope the time for debate is over, and the time for action has arrived.  The alcohol industry spends 44 million Euro per year on advertising in Ireland alone, which is keeping many recession bitten newspapers and TV stations afloat.  Alcohol industry lobby groups have also infiltrated governments very successfully over the last twenty years, holding back any real debate or legislative change on the issues raised at the AAI conference or by the NGO's.  Will Bertie Ahern be right for once? As he so forgettably said,  "I'm a bit disappointed that so many people have closed up on their barriers, that's why we have been very anxious to keep our position."


For all the presentations at the Alcohol Where's the Harm Conference follow the link.

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