Diageo laps it up with alcohol ‘campaign’

The Diageo-funded ‘Stop Out Of Control Drinking Campaign’ is like the time when Shell got involved in environmental campaigning - it’s hypocritical, writes Ruairí McKiernan

Fergus Finlay at the launch of an independent campaign to change Ireland's drinking culture and behaviour. The campaign is funded by Diageo but led by a board of figures  Picture: Nick Bradshaw

YOU couldn’t make this up. A drinks industry group has created an alcohol awareness campaign headed by the respected head of a leading children’s charity.

Sounds crazy, but this is exactly what’s happening with the new Diageo-funded ‘Stop Out Of Control Drinking Campaign’, chaired by Fergus Finlay, the chief executive of Barnardos.

Most people agree that Ireland needs to look at our relationship with alcohol. There’s hardly a family in the country that isn’t adversely affected in some way. We have a boozy reputation abroad and it seems every visiting dignitary is handed a pint before they have time to unpack their bags. This in a country where alcohol-related harm is estimated to cost every taxpayer over €3,000 per year.

In understanding this, the role of alcohol as a painkiller, needs exploring. For most people, drinking doesn’t pose a problem, but for many others it’s a cheap, accessible, and socially acceptable crutch for easing suffering and pain.

Alcohol also plays a central role in Irish culture, helping us mark weddings, funerals, and Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate celebrations. A lack of alcohol-free spaces to gather and socialise doesn’t help, nor does the example set by some of our leaders.

The controversy surrounding the Dáil ‘lapgate’ incident on the night of the 2013 abortion debate highlighted this, as did the claims of widespread drunkenness on the night the former Anglo Irish Bank was liquidated. Just last December, there were more allegations of late-night Dáil bar boozing as senators voted to pass the controversial Water Services Bill.

UK multinational Diageo has a big interest in our relationship with drink. They’re continually pushing to create the impression that Guinness is part of the Irish identity. The latest Guinness TV advert goes so far as to align its product with the proud legacy of Munster’s famous win over the All Blacks.

Evidence shows that brand positioning alongside sports and music is key to reaching the youth market. The bottom line is the drinks industry wants us to consume more booze, not less, and they invest heavily in dreaming up new ways of making this happen.

I’ve no doubt that there are good people working for Diageo who are parents and concerned citizens just like the rest of us. But can we trust a corporation to lead the way in tackling the drink problem they help create?

It reminds me of Shell getting involved in environmental campaigning in what campaigners refer to as ‘greenwashing’. Surely there’s a contradiction, as former Ireland rugby international Denis Hickie points out, in spending tens of millions promoting alcohol and on the other hand offering a few quid to help clean up the mess.

It’s like a tobacco company running a ‘Stop Out Of Control Smoking’ campaign.

Ultimately, Diageo’s new campaign is its latest attempt to frame the debate, dilute the issues, offset criticism, and prevent real legislative reform. It gets the Government off its back and allows the company to foster a socially responsible image.

Ireland isn’t alone in this. There is a growing body of international evidence documenting efforts by the global alcohol industry to influence governments to adopt alcohol policies that are favourable to their business interests.

The World Health Organisation has issued a warning on the emergence of the alcohol industry getting involved in public health campaigning. They say that industry initiatives are usually weak, rarely evidence-based, and unlikely to reduce harmful alcohol use, as I suspect is the case with Diageo’s website, drinkaware.ie.

A key part of its strategy in all of this is to create the appearance of partnership working, while in reality it holds the real power and the purse strings.

Diageo’s latest manoeuvre comes in the wake of the Government abandoning attempts to tackle the issue of alcohol sponsorship in sport. Soon afterwards, Communications Minister Alex White appointed a recently resigned drinks industry lobbyist to the board of RTÉ.

Now we have a Diageo-created campaign supported by Barnardos, St Patrick’s Mental Health Hospital, Dublin City University, the Irish Rugby Union Players Association, the National Parents Council, and a range of other partners, politicians, and celebrities. In addition to this, several experienced members of the children’s rights sector have joined Diageo’s payroll and are no doubt bringing much-needed credibility and connections.

Fergus Finlay says the new campaign is fully independent yet David Smith, the head of Diageo Ireland, and the man with the cheque book, sits on the board. This is the same man who in 2013 threatened investment in Ireland if market conditions weren’t favourable. Meanwhile the campaign’s website, rolemodels.ie, appears to be connected to a UK lobbyist linked to Diageo.

I don’t doubt the commitment and integrity of Mr Finlay and the supporters he has brought on board. All of them are unpaid and I understand that they believe that the campaign is independent.

However, like senator Jillian Van Turnhout, Dr Mick Loftus, Alcohol Action Ireland, the Union of Students in Ireland, and many others, I’m just not convinced.

It looks like the industry wants to distract us from the big issues, just like the tobacco industry has attempted to do. Yes we need campaigns and debates but until we tackle the drinks industry we’ll continue to dodge one of the major factors behind Ireland’s problematic relationship with alcohol.

  • Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, founder of SpunOut.ie, and member of the Council of State. He is a voluntary board member of Uplift, Gaisce — the President’s Award, and the Soar Foundation. His website is ruairimckiernan.com.
FERGUS FINLAY: Time to stop papering over ‘craics’ and tackle corrosive alcohol abuse

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