Schools should be 'no go' area for alcohol industry

The HSE and addiction workers all say drinks industry funding has no place in schools. So how have 160 schools been educating children with a programme designed and paid for by the alcohol industry? Jess Casey reports
Schools should be 'no go' area for alcohol industry

How is an organisation with close funding ties to the drinks industry allowed to train teachers about alcohol harm reduction against the advice of the HSE and the Department of Health?

It would be unimaginable for an organisation that receives even a euro in funding from the tobacco industry to run a school programme about smoking.

So how is an organisation with close funding ties to the drinks industry allowed to train teachers about alcohol harm reduction against the advice of the HSE and the Department of Health?

Working in addiction services for more than 20 years, David Lane has seen the impact of alcohol misuse and the challenges its causes people across society, of all ages and backgrounds.

“It’s really pervasive in this country,” he told the Irish Examiner

“The impact of alcohol misuse on the health service, and the impact more importantly on individuals and their own health and their families; we’ve been really trying to work on what we need to do to reduce the significant challenges it does cause.” 

As the HSE coordinator of drug and alcohol services in Cork and Kerry, one of the major pieces of work he has helped get across the line in recent years is the enactment of the Public Health Alcohol Act 2018.

“It was groundbreaking from our point of view,” he said. “We started then for the first time as a country to deal with the things that will actually make a difference in terms of reducing people's consumption of alcohol.” 

Drinkaware programme

This week, Mr Lane will write to every secondary school in Cork and Kerry, urging them not to allow their teachers to take part in education programmes offered by Drinkaware.

In line with Department of Education guidelines, the Drinkaware programme is intended to be delivered by teachers themselves to their students.

The programme is not available to teachers who have not attended the training from Drinkaware.

More than 310 teachers in more than 160 schools have been trained on the programme to date.

It was developed by the Drinkaware education programme manager, with the support of its Education Steering Committee made up of six highly experienced educationalists, a spokeswoman said.

“The programme involves 8 to 11 40-minute lesson plans delivered on a weekly/fortnightly basis as part of the SPHE curriculum.” 

Drinkaware’s website describes itself as a charity that is primarily funded through donations from the private sector.

Funding

According to its website, these include Alcosense, Aldi, Clonakilty Distillery, Dublin Beer Factory, Edward Dillon, Lidl, Marks and Spencer Ireland, Galway Craft Beers, Proximo Spirits and William Grant.

There’s “no doubt” in terms of where Drinkaware’s links are, Mr. Lane said.

They are funded by the drinks industry, and the drinks industry should have no hand, act or part in terms of developing educational materials for secondary school students. We need to be very clear.

 “They should be nowhere near our schools is the bottom line, from my point of view.” 

 “It’s not helpful from my point of view that there is that conflation of them trying to sell huge quantities of alcohol on the one hand in terms of making profits and all that, and on the other hand, they run these campaigns around reducing harm caused by alcohol. We need to break that cycle, we need to move away from it.” 

 Developed by the HSE, the Department of Education and the Drug and Alcohol Task Forces, ‘Know the Score’ is the first national evidence-based resource on alcohol and drugs for senior cycle students.

The teaching manual, teaching methodologies and associated resources are all available online.

More resources are currently being developed to support junior cycle SPHE. ‘Healthy Choices’ addresses alcohol, tobacco and drug use, with more information due to be published in 2023.

The official advice from the HSE, Department of Health and Department of Education is that schools should not involve alcohol industry-funded initiatives in health education.
The official advice from the HSE, Department of Health and Department of Education is that schools should not involve alcohol industry-funded initiatives in health education.

In 2019 when ‘Know the Score’ was launched, then Minister for Health Simon Harris, said it was vital that students, teachers and parents got support from services like the HSE, adding it was “not appropriate” that schools use any materials or resources developed by organisations funded by the alcohol industry.

Indeed, the official advice from the HSE, Department of Health and Department of Education is that schools should not involve alcohol industry-funded initiatives in health education.

But where this policy stops short is that it doesn’t specifically name ‘Drinkaware’, according to Paula Leonard of Alcohol Forum Ireland.

“The concern that we would have is that there seems to be quite a low level of population awareness that Drinkaware is funded by the alcohol industry.

"Elected TDs have said to me: ‘What do you mean Drinkaware is in our schools, what do you mean they are funded by the alcohol industry?’” 

The launch of the ‘i-Mark’ initiative, which works to support independence from alcohol industry influences, has brought the work of many local drugs and alcohol taskforces closer together, she believes.

Concern over Drinkaware

At a grassroots level, community workers are seriously concerned about Drinkaware working with schools.

“The bottom line is that the alcohol industry exists to increase its profit margins for its shareholders,” Ms Leonard said. “That is its job. They do that job really well; I don’t have a problem with that.” 

However, schools should be a 'no-go' area.

“In common with public health advocates across the globe, we really feel that schools-based education with young people is not an appropriate area for drinks industry-funded initiatives to be involved in.“ 

 “We feel those are best placed, and best done and lead by the Department of Education, the HSE and the Department of Health.

 If it was being delivered in my child’s school I would like to know what is being delivered, I would like to be told in advance that the programme is funded by the alcohol industry and I would certainly like to see what is included

 “I think it's really important that parents, the public and the communities really become aware of those issues. We have a right to know who is in our schools, what are they delivering to our children and what are the risks that may be associated with that model of intervention?” 

“When my daughter is getting sex education, or anti-bullying education we get a note home. Have any of these parents been asked for permission for an alcohol industry-funded programme to be delivered to their children?” she said.

Campaign's aims

The full classroom resources involved in the Drinkaware programme are not available online. It's understood to run to 300 pages.

The stated aim of the programme is to delay the age of first drink in Ireland, which currently averages at just under 16 years, and to provide students with information on alcohol-related harms.

From the excerpts provided to the Irish Examiner , lessons across the three years of the junior cycle are focused on themes such as the consequences of alcohol use, peer influences, building resilience, coping and alternatives to alcohol.

It includes using interactive learning methods as well as video clips and debates, challenging teachers' biases, and workshops with staff, students and parents.

The programme has been evaluated by Maynooth University, with teachers describing the programme as “very comprehensive”, “well-thought-out” and “expert and energetic”.

One student said: “If we didn't do this course, we would never know about the effects of alcohol. It is so important to know about peer pressure.” 

The Irish Examiner asked Drinkaware why it is continuing to offer an education programme to schools when it contradicts HSE and Department of Health advice.

Sheena Horgan, CEO of  Drinkaware.
Sheena Horgan, CEO of  Drinkaware.

The statement provided did not directly answer this question. However, Drinkaware did provide a statement from its chief executive Sheena Horgan.

She said: “Through collaboration and the collective efforts of Irish society from educators and parents to charities and government, Drinkaware believes we can make a lasting difference to the next generation’s relationship with alcohol.”

 Delaying the age of a first drink is a key goal for Drinkaware, she added. 

“Our school alcohol education programmes are designed to prevent the start of underage drinking and reduce the number of young people who drink through effective alcohol education that challenges the normalised expectations and fact-based knowledge of young people.” 

The consequences of not having effective and nationally available alcohol education are far-reaching.

“A youth population that is uneducated on the facts regarding alcohol and its misuse, will mean the continuation and likely escalation of an unhealthy drinking culture, the perpetuation of negative social norms, and the increase of alcohol-related harm to self and others.”

British study

 In the UK, a recent major academic study of alcohol industry-backed education programmes found such programmes promoted children’s familiarisation with drinking.

‘Distilling the curriculum’ scrutinised all classroom resources, worksheets, teachers’ guidance notes, and PowerPoint presentations.

Paula Leonard said: “Some of them include nudges towards drinking, and very glossy, positive images of alcohol were included in some of the materials.” These resources are a concern to HSE’s David Lane too. “All of them promote children’s familiarization with, and the normalisation of alcohol, as a ‘normal’ adult consumer product, this is what they say, which children must learn how to master and ‘use responsibly’.” 

“Those programmes [in the UK were found to] also contain misinformation; They include things like selective presentation and the omission of risks.

 “People don’t want to talk about them but these are the cancer risks associated with using a certain substance and we need to be very clear with people, like we are with cigarettes.” 

The HSE, the Department of Health and the Department of Education each said schools should not use any materials or resources developed by organisations funded by the alcohol industry.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said that the position of Stephen Donnelly, the Minister for Health, remains. “It is not appropriate that schools use any materials or resources developed by organisations funded by the alcohol industry.”

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