Varadkar urged to make his position clear on alcohol awareness campaign

Health Minister Leo Varadkar should "unequivocally" say whether he supports a drinks industry-funded alcohol awareness campaign after claims the initiative is a "smokescreen" to take the political focus away from wider legal reforms.

Varadkar urged to make his position clear on alcohol awareness campaign

Independent senator and former Children’s Rights Alliance CEO Jillian van Turnhout said it is vital Mr Varadkar makes his position clear, due to an escalating row over the Diageo-backed Stop Out-Of-Control Drinking campaign.

Ms van Turnhout accused the drinks firm of setting up and funding the campaign in February simply to take the focus away from potential legal changes which the Oireachtas began discussing earlier this year.

She said it is no coincidence the initiative emerged at the same time as Ireland “finally” started to look at introducing minimum pricing, marketing, alcohol promotion, and alcohol availability through the Public Health Alcohol Bill, which could damage the multi-million euro industry.

A campaign spokesperson rejected the comments, insisting that while the initiative was set up and funded by the drinks firm, 11 of the 12 board members are entirely independent.

However, Ms van Turnhout said the firm’s involvement is highly questionable, and that Mr Varadkar must make his position clear.

“The minister must unequivocally say whether he is backing it,” she said. “It’s no coincidence that, just as Ireland is about to do something, this comes along, and drinkaware.ie is renewed and starts up a schools programme.

“The drinks industry should not be involved in public health campaigns to the extent they are with this. If Diageo had given the money away to an existing group and said ‘do whatever you want’, that would be one thing, but they set it up, they sit on the board, and they fund it. They’re spending €1m on a campaign but make €40m to €50m from alcohol. Do they want a slap on the back?”

After a phone call to Barnardos CEO and campaign chair Fergus Finlay, a campaign spokesman said the initiative is entirely focused on reducing dangerous drinking in Ireland and is not a replacement for other legal changes.

He said criticism is “premature” before the group draws up a report in July on what needs to be done.

The row came days after controversy erupted over a campaign advert showing a teenage girl which the Rape Crisis Network claimed “blames victims of rape” — a view the initiative said was misinterpreted — and as a second board member stepped down citing “resource restraints”.

MyMind’s Krystian Fikert left the body days after GP Ciara Kelly also departed due to “time constraints”.

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