Jerry Buttimer’s lasting impression of his time in the preparation of the recently-published Report on the Misuse of Alcohol and Other Drugs would be of the “genuine engagement” across all sides of the divide.
“I was very heartened by their approach,” he tells me as we sit in his Dail office post publication, “There was a willingness to engage and readily participate and not be defensive. They were ready to have a role to play.”
As a result, his Committee heard views from a wide spectrum of different groups and interests during the three months of submissions.
“Those affected by alcohol were looking for a genuinely different approach to be taken to public health,” he says.
There’s huge interest in the whole topic of alcohol with crossover along the spectrum from parents, reformed drinkers, the industry etc, he says.
“The overarching objective is improving public health which is what drives us in the Committee to highlight the prevalence of alcohol and to emphasise the dangers of its misuse.”
Of the Committee’s 13 recommendations one sought a ban on advertising alcohol discounts. Most in the drinks industry would agree with that. It would also return some business to the more employment-intensive licensed trade.
As a former Chairman of Bishopstown GAA Club for six years, he understands the importance of providing a service to members while at the same time having a responsible attitude to alcohol.
“But no single measure of itself will change our attitudes to alcohol,” he states.
Nevertheless, many have questioned the Committee’s recommendation for a 9pm tv ‘watershed’ and a ban on advertising alcohol products on social networking sites, arguing that these could easily be circumvented by interests outside the State.
“It’s a valid point,” he responds, “UPC, Sky and social networking sites – we all receive our information differently. But because of this we’re concerned as more and more young people are moving away from traditional means of communication to receive their information. There needs to be a discussion moving towards how we can regulate and control this issue, particularly for those under 18. I believe that the age of initiation to alcohol has moved from 16 to 14 and the Committee heard evidence that alcohol is now a primary gateway drug for young people.
“We must reach the new market of young people and encourage them to be different in their approach to alcohol – I’m not a prohibitionist but I’d like to encourage them to be different in their approach to alcohol. It’s the first of the recommendations we make. We must attempt to minimise the effect of alcohol on people under 18 who may be engaged in imitative behaviour.”
For those over 18, publicans would argue that it’s better to drink alcohol in a supervised environment, but their role in both rural and urban society has been diminished through the years by excessive taxes, legislation and other obstacles put in the path of those responsibly retailing alcohol.
Personally, he’s concerned at the proliferation of outlets selling alcohol. At the report’s launch he was able to quote at least five premises selling alcohol within a mile of his own home.
“Is that good for business, for the customer, for public health?” he asks me,
“I can easily envisage the public house as a social amenity but overall I think we have to look at the public health of the nation. We’ve changed the attitude to drink-driving and I accept that it’s a big step for publicans but we must legislate for public health.
“In this country we haven’t been very honest with each other in terms of how to promote sensible, reasonable drinking while at the same time we have binge-drinking. We must ask why this is.
“Our attitude to – and culture around – alcohol is wrong down through the years. It’s an ongoing issue in emergency departments and treatment centres and is having a profound effect on family life and on society too.”
Some have suggested that rather than introducing new legislation at this juncture, the Government simply implement Section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008 introducing structural separation of alcohol in mixed trading outlets such as supermarkets.
“Minister Shatter has a Consultation Paper out at the moment on the ‘separation’ issue,” he replies, “What we’ve said in the report – and many people missed this – is that the Voluntary Code in the industry should be abolished to be replaced by a Statutory Code and while I compliment the RRAI’s Padraig White, I still feel it’s necessary to bring this Voluntary Code onto a Statutory footing.
“If this Statutory Code is found not to work, then I’d recommend considering an outright ban on alcohol sales in certain outlets. Is it reasonable to see a stack of beer on special offer at the end of a groceries gondola or wines in the biscuit aisle? Let’s change now to the Statutory situation, have your alcohol in a separate section and let’s look at it from there. Despite what we’re being told, the Voluntary Code is not being adhered to.”
It’s somewhat more difficult to get him to focus on which outlet types he’d like to see banned from selling alcohol (Recommendation 11) and whether these outlets would have current licences rescinded.
“I’m more concerned about alcohol’s presentation in some outlets, for example the Voluntary Code should be made Statutory for outlets not adhering to Recommendation 10 – that’s not a ban on supermarkets selling alcohol.
And if the change from Voluntary to Statutory status does not work, perhaps consideration should be given to taking outlets on an individual basis first and if that doesn’t work the Government should look at the whole issue again, he feels.
“I’m not calling for a complete ban, but the Voluntary Code is not working. If we put this on a Statutory footing and allow for change to take place, should that fail, consideration should be given to an outright ban on some outlets selling alcohol – but we’re a long way away from that at present,” he stresses.
How would he envisage retail delivery of alcohol direct to the consumer’s home? Would he ban alcohol sales by e-commerce companies and takeaways?
“That’s a very good question and one area in need of further analysis and in-depth discussion. If you walk into an outlet to buy alcohol you need ID. There’s a ‘visual’ between the buyer and the seller. You lose that contact with remote selling.
“I’m in no way trying to limit e-commerce and online selling but we need to review the legislation in relation to young people being able to buy alcohol online. It needs a lot more teasing out. One can’t just bring in a blanket ban straight away.”
As noted in the report, between 1990 and 2010 there have been 10 committees/groups tasked with bringing forward recommendations on alcohol issues. Fifteen reports have been produced but Government has implemented few of the recommendations. Why should this report be treated any differently?
He explains that the report of the independent National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group is to be given to the Government. Roisin Shortall and the Department of Health’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan will come back to his committee on 23rd February.
“We’re at the point now where we must look at the issue of alcohol misuse and deal with it or we’ll pass onto a future generation the results of our inaction which will have a catastrophic effect and which we cannot allow to happen.”
His Committee has begun the process and will work with Minister Shortall. At the time of going to press it awaited publication of her report and in tandem with this, he hopes to ensure that we have a policy that promotes public health and minimises the misuse of alcohol while redressing the issue with alcohol abuse.