Dr Reilly said that while alcohol addiction was a major problem, so too was sports’ “addiction” to the income from sponsorship by the drinks industry.
He was speaking after an Oireachtas committee argued against banning sponsorship and drink giant Diageo threatened to pull back operations if the measure went through.
The Oireachtas Transport Committee, which covers the sports remit, has issued a draft report calling for the retention of alcohol sports sponsorship, saying no replacement sponsors available.
It is the second Oireachtas committee which has failed to back the measure: in Jan 2012, the Oireachtas Health Committee did not make any recommendations on the matter.
The proposal to phase out alcohol sponsorship by 2016 was one of 45 recommendations in the National Substance Misuse Strategy steering group report, published in Feb 2012.
Transport vice-chairman John O’Mahony, a former inter-county footballer and manager, said “all sides” agreed the ban would have “serious implications” for sporting bodies.
Representatives from the alcohol industry and sporting bodies have welcomed the draft report, while medical experts have expressed disappointment.
Joe Barry, who sat on the steering group, said that the evidence of a link between sponsorship and drinking was “very strong” and said sporting bodies had “essentially been bought”.
Yesterday, the country director of Diageo in Ireland warned the brewer could pull back operations if the ban went ahead.
David Smith told the Sunday Business Post: “If our Irish business is diminished by this, there is less need to invest. If we don’t have the freedom we need in Ireland, we will pull back.”
Dr Reilly responded: “We’re going to listen, have listened, and continue to listen to the concerns raised by people, but we have a major challenge here, and the challenge is to reduce the number of people in this country who are addicted to alcohol, but also to reduce sport’s addiction to the income alcohol brings to them.”
Speaking on RTÉ, he said: “We believe nature abhors a vacuum. As alcohol moves out of sport, other promoters will move in.”
Dr Reilly said that the proposed ban would be introduced in a “graded fashion”.
He rejected claims that there were no alternative sponsors: “They said the very same thing about tobacco — I’m not comparing tobacco with alcohol, they’re very different — but they said the same thing: The sky would fall in if the tobacco industry weren’t allowed advertise as sponsor. It didn’t happen, it won’t happen here.”
The Government’s action plan on alcohol has been promised for almost a year, but still has not been agreed by Cabinet, where four ministers have expressed concerns on the sports sponsorship ban.