Government must have bottle to take on drink lobby

We should not be surprised at the current consumption patterns among youth, given that it is sold at pocket-money prices.

Diageo-funded campaign should be wound up and legislators need, for once, to put health of citizens ahead of interests of drinks industry, says James Doorley.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill currently before the Oireachtas represents the best chance in a generation to address alcohol-related harm in Ireland. The draft legislation is far from perfect but the proposals to address price, availability and advertising will, if implemented, reduce misuse in Ireland. The National Substance Misuse Strategy Group on which I represented the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) recommended these measures. We did so because the international and independent evidence demonstrates that they work.

Our primary concern is for the health and well-being of children and young people. We are concerned at the data showing they are beginning to start drinking at a younger age, are drinking significant volumes of alcohol and are drinking more frequently.

We are also concerned about the impact on children and young people in households where there is alcohol misuse by parents or other family members. Our doctors and hospitals are reporting on the ever-increasing number of younger patients with alcohol-related medical conditions.

In addition, persistent alcohol misuse leads to serious short and medium term personal, educational and life limiting consequences for young people. This is not happening by accident. It is occurring because the means by which alcohol is marketed and sold has changed radically in the last 20 years. When alcohol is promoted with sophisticated and pervasive advertising, is widely available and is sold at pocket money prices we should not be surprised at the current consumption patterns among young people. And most importantly public policy has not kept pace with the changing environment.

However, the lack of action by successive Governments is not for want of research, analysis, reports and recommendations. There have been at least 11 committees or groups set up to look at the various aspects of alcohol policy which have produced over 15 reports since 1990. The sad reality is that the drinks industry and their allies have managed to stymie and block previous attempts to take action. For example, in 2003 the then Government announced they were introducing restrictions on alcohol advertising similar to those in the current bill. This legislation was subsequently shelved in favour of ineffective and flawed voluntary codes following lobbying by the drinks and advertising industry.

This is why I and many others working to reduce alcohol related harm are concerned at both the nature and timing of the recent Diageo-funded campaign to “Stop Out-of-Control-Drinking”. It follows a familiar pattern. Government proposes to take meaningful action, as with the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, only for the drinks industry to come forward with an alternative designed to give the impression that Government action is unnecessary. The focus of this campaign on awareness and discussions about changing “our culture of drinking” carry all the hallmarks of previous efforts to head-off legislation. Does anyone seriously think we could have reduced road deaths or introduced the smoking ban through discussions about “our culture of dangerous driving or smoking in pubs”? The tactics differ but the objective remains the same, to create the impression of activity but ultimately to protect the sales and profits of the drinks industry. In our view the objective here is to delay and block the legislation or at the very least to weaken it.

This is ultimately an issue of trust; the track record of the drinks industry has been to state that they support measures to reduce alcohol-related harm, particularly among children and young people. However, their actions tell a different story. The recommendations of the National Substance Misuse Strategy Group — which the drinks industry was represented on — were drawn up following two years of consultation, debate and analysis of independent research and evidence. However, when it came to publishing the report from the group the industry opposed all the key recommendations on price, advertising, sponsorship and availability.

I accept the bona fides and good intentions of those who accepted the invitation from Diageo to get involved in their latest campaign. However, it is possible to be both well-meaning and misguided. Regrettably their participation in this campaign is lending a cloak of credibility to Diageo and the drinks industry’s efforts to once again prevent action to reduce alcohol-related harm. It is our view that this campaign should be wound up. The drinks industry should not be involved in the development or delivery of any alcohol-related policies or campaigns. Instead they should contribute to the economic and social cost of alcohol misuse through a social responsibility levy. These funds would be collected by Government and could be used to replace the drinks industry sponsorship of sport, among other measures, as recommended by the National Substance Misuse Strategy Group.

For too long the commercial interests of the drinks industry have taken precedence over the health and well-being of our citizens, especially our children and young people. There is no doubt that this legislation if implemented will have an impact on the sales and profits of the alcohol manufacturers. However, maintaining the status quo and buying into the fantasy that a drinks industry initiative will achieve anything of substance also carries a cost in terms of lives lost and damaged, not to mention the costs imposed on our public services such as our health and justice system. Government is ultimately about making political choices and decisions. For once we need our Government to make the right and prudent choice to put the health and well-being of our citizens ahead of the interests of the drinks industry.

James Doorley is Deputy Director of the National Youth Council of Ireland and was a member of the National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group.

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