Dr John Hillery presents to parliament on Public Health (Alcohol) Bill
A delegation from the Royal College of Physicians led by Prof Frank Murray made a pre-parliamentary presentation to more than 30 Fine Gael TDs and Senators in late November about the impact alcohol abuse has had on the health services. Incoming president of the College of Psychiatrists Dr John Hillery was among the speakers including Dr Maeve Skelly, a gastroenterologist from University Hospital Limerick and Prof Aidan McCormack, a herpetologist from St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin.
The presentation relates to the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill which is aimed at tackling alcohol abuse and would require store owners to segregate alcohol and non-alcohol products to ensure alcohol is not regarded by customers, especially children, as similar to other commodities. The Bill was recently deferred by the Government until after Christmas in an effort to overcome internal divisions over a provision to reduce the visibility of drinks in grocery stores.
The speakers outlined how 1,500 hospital bed nights every night were alcohol-related, a situation that has contributed heavily to the trolley crisis. They also highlighted the details of cases where young patients, including women, were presenting with serious liver problems, which was previously only associated with older males.
Dr Skelly said: “In University Hospital Limerick, we regularly have the highest trolley numbers in the country. Our access to hospital beds in the midwest is directly related to the number of patients who are under our care with alcohol related disease and in turn how the widespread sale of alcohol is associated with my patients’ problems and hospital admissions. ”
The Bill follows a new study led by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Health Research Board which examined the relationship between high-risk drinking, personal income, place of purchase and price paid for alcohol.
The study found that minimum unit pricing for alcohol will affect 14% of drinkers and that the cheapest alcohol products were favoured by the heaviest drinkers, irrespective of income levels.
Lead researcher Dr Gráinne Cousins said:
Some opponents of minimum unit pricing are concerned that consumers using alcohol in a low-risk manner will be punished with higher prices. Our findings do not support these concerns, as unlike tax or excise measures, the introduction of a minimum unit price would affect less than 14% of the population. More importantly, from a population health perspective, we have shown that a minimum unit price of €1 per standard drink will primarily target high-risk drinkers.”
The research shows that in 2013, three deaths per day were alcohol-related and alcohol-related harm costs the State an estimated €1.5bn on alcohol-related hospital discharges based on 2012 figures. The rate of alcohol-related liver disease has trebled between 1995 and 2013, according to the study.
RCPI President Prof Frank Murray, a consultant gastroenterologist at Beaumont Hospital said there is extensive evidence from several provinces in Canada where they have had a pricing mechanism akin to minimum unit pricing, that there has been a fall in alcohol consumption, a fall in hospitalisation as a result of alcohol, a fall in deaths as a result of alcohol and a fall in crime.
I think there is very good evidence that MUP is effective”, he said.
He also said the bill needs to be implemented in a way that is robust and would “withstand subsequent scrutiny if it’s challenged through the courts”.
He said that alcohol is no ordinary commodity and it should be treated differently to other products sold in shops as it is an addictive substance that causes about 1,000 deaths a year in Ireland. For those concerned that some businesses may see their profits fall as a result of the legislation Prof Murray stated that:
“We live in a society not simply an economy and we have to see this in the whole.”