Thursday 17 August 2017

John McGee: The State cannot enforce rational decision-making

'Of course, proponents of the Bill will argue otherwise. But in 10 years' time, I will put money on it that the drunken carnage we see on the streets in cities and towns around Ireland every weekend will not have abated.' (stock image)
'Of course, proponents of the Bill will argue otherwise. But in 10 years' time, I will put money on it that the drunken carnage we see on the streets in cities and towns around Ireland every weekend will not have abated.' (stock image)

John McGee

As the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill winds its seemingly never-ending way through the Oireachtas, it now seems highly likely that its many advocates - ranging from the HSE and the medical profession right through to a range of NGOs - may finally get their day as it is expected to be passed later this year.

That it has taken so long to get this far is an indication of how deeply rooted and divided opinions are about the proposed legislation and the implications it will have on public health, the commercial fortunes of the key stakeholders and, of course, the wider marketing universe.

For all the different vested interest groups, there is a great deal at stake. For the drinks industry, led by the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI), there is the future viability of an industry that employs 92,000 people, buys Irish raw materials worth in excess of €2bn a year, exports over €1bn and contributes over €2.2bn in taxes to the Exchequer per annum.

Proponents of the legislation, however, have argued that Irish society is buckling under the pressure of alcohol misuse that is costing the State anything up to €2.3bn a year and the HSE up to 1,500 hospital beds a night, while three people die every day due to alcohol-related illnesses. You can add to this list the estimated 283,866 work days that were lost to alcohol-related absenteeism in 2016. It is hard to argue with such shocking statistics. Even though consumption of alcohol per capita in Ireland has declined by 24pc over the last 12 years, to 10.9 litres per capita - placing us 18th in the EU - it is abundantly clear that our national relationship with alcohol still leaves a lot to be desired. But will the advertising and marketing restrictions as set out in the bill have the desired impact? I am not entirely convinced.

One of the more interesting takeaways from a study of behavioural economics is that consumers don't always act rationally when confronted with making often simple, no-brainer decisions in their day-to-day lives.

As they might say in parts of Yorkshire: "There's nowt so queer as folk."

One only has to look at the prevalence of smoking in Irish society today. A 2016 study by the HSE estimated that a staggering 18.7pc of the population smokes. Every smoker knows the damage they are doing to their health but they have made that irrational decision to smoke - even when confronted with shocking images of tumours or stroke victims on cigarette packaging. Their decision to smoke, however, has not in any way been influenced by advertising or marketing because, as we know, that was banned years ago.

Or what about gambling, possibly the next frontier when it comes to tackling another one of society's louche behaviours? While the marketing of gambling services is already regulated, a 2015 UCD survey estimated that there are over 40,000 problem gamblers in Ireland. As we have already seen with the recent controversy surrounding gambling amongst some GAA players, this may only be the tip of a very large iceberg. Again, most serious gamblers know that the odds are often stacked against them, yet they continue to make the irrational decision to carry on or chase their losses in the knowledge that it could lead to financial ruin.

Then of course, there's the wider problem of drug abuse and addiction in society, an issue that I don't intend to dwell on here because as with smoking and alcoholism, we are straying into the realms of addiction and the many psychological and other complex reasons why people often make the irrational choices.

But let's go back to the issue of whether or not advertising influences people to drink more. In a recent report on the implications of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill and the implications it will have for media companies in terms of lost advertising revenues, leading economist Jim Power noted that the existing research is at best sketchy and at worst far from convincing.

"International research does not provide conclusive evidence that a ban or severe restrictions on advertising of alcohol would achieve the desired effect of reducing the consumption of alcohol and particularly consumption among young people," said Power.

"It is far from certain that an evidence base exists to justify a ban or significant restrictions on advertising as contained in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015. Hence, it is very questionable if the benefits to be derived from a ban on advertising would outweigh the costs."

Of course, proponents of the Bill will argue otherwise. But in 10 years' time, I will put money on it that the drunken carnage we see on the streets in cities and towns around Ireland every weekend will not have abated.

And while Guinness may never be allowed sponsor the Cork Jazz Festival or the PRO12 Rugby in the future, Irish people will continue to flock to pubs before and after a gig or a match. Furthermore, they will continue to make irrational choices until the wee hours of the morning - but I am confident that advertising will not be to blame.

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