Government plans to put alcohol abuse alongside drug abuse have been welcomed by leading activists in the treatment of addiction problems.
However, the drinks industry has concerns about the policy.
Alcohol is a “gateway drug” to illicit drugs such as ecstasy and heroin, and measures to tackle it in the forthcoming National Substance Misuse Strategy will “have to be radical”, according to a member of the steering committee.
Fergus McCabe, who was speaking at the publication of the Merchants Quay Ireland annual review in Dublin yesterday, was commenting on plans by Minister of State for Health with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, Róisín Shortall, to include alcohol in the next strategy, linking it with illicit drugs.
“We have been talking about the damage alcohol does for years and we have never seriously faced up to really doing something about it,” said Mr McCabe, who is also a member of the National Drugs Task Force.
“Most of the local drugs task forces will tell you that alcohol is doing far more damage to families and communities than illegal drugs – though that is obviously not to minimise the devastating impact of the drugs crisis.
“Though poverty is probably the greatest gateway factor to drug abuse, there is no doubt alcohol acts as one too and if we are going to be serious about tackling alcohol the measures in the new strategy are going to have to be radical.”
The steering committee on substance misuse is due to report in coming weeks and the National Substance Misuse Strategy will be published “before the end of the year”, said Ms Shortall.
“When looking at illicit drugs we keep coming back to alcohol as posing a bigger threat to young people than drugs. Alcohol misuse blights our society. I think the time is right for this, that society can no longer accept the damage alcohol is doing. It wants us to at last take on the problem of alcohol misuse in a very serious way.”
She told The Irish Times she wants to introduce a minimum price for alcohol to stop below-cost selling, to reduce the number of outlets where it is available, to reduce alcohol industry sponsorship of sports and music events and to “really strengthen enforcement of the laws against sales to underage customers”.
Katherine D’Arcy, acting director of the Alcohol and Beverage Federation of Ireland, said her members did not accept that drugs and alcohol should be treated in the same way.
“Alcohol when enjoyed in moderation is not a health risk, unlike illicit drugs. It is far too complex an issue to say using alcohol leads to taking drugs. There are many more issues.”
The federation is on the steering committee and had “co-operated fully with it”, but she did not comment on possible recommendations.
Mr McCabe said there was probably “no other country, even in northern Europe, where drink, and getting drunk, is seen as so integral to everything – christenings, funerals, retirements, engagements, sports events, concerts, a night out”.
“Drinking alcohol is very much part of our culture,” said Ms Shortall.
“We need to break that. We all know its cost to society, to the economy, the health services, to mental health services.”