Saturday 22 October 2016

Booze is part of our culture - and drinks industry has nurtured it

Published 24/09/2015 | 02:30

Conor Cullen
Conor Cullen

The 'Stop Out of Control Drinking' report is primarily focused on culture - and tells us that our harmful drinking is deeply rooted in our culture, traditions and lifestyles. It's hard to disagree with that.

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However, it is notable that whereas the report finds Irish people are to blame for our culture of harmful drinking and says we must take responsibility for it, the prominent role of the alcohol industry in creating this culture, and its vested interest in sustaining it, are omitted.

'Stop Out of Control Drinking' also informs us that there is no "silver bullet" and that "changing harmful drinking cultures and behaviours will require a range of joined-up and mutually reinforcing actions as well as changes in policy by government and many other actors".

This is true.

Read more: Psychiatrists urge ban on alcohol sponsors for sport

However, the three key evidence-based policy areas for reducing alcohol harm - alcohol marketing, availability and pricing - do not feature in the report's 14 recommendations.

To reduce alcohol harm in Ireland, we have to reduce consumption, which means selling less alcohol - the exact opposite of what the industry strives to do.

Undoubtedly, we have a harmful drinking culture, one that wreaks havoc on this country, claiming three lives every day and causing a wide range of harms to individuals, families and communities throughout Ireland.

However, that culture did not just spring up organically. We did not go from drinking five litres of pure alcohol per capita in 1960 to over 11 litres today without significant shaping of our culture by those who profit from the sale of alcohol.

This is a culture-shaping process that has become more evident as the global alcohol industry itself has become concentrated and large multinationals are using their considerable power and influence to protect the interests of their shareholders.

It has led to a situation where, too often, profit trumps public health.

When considering our culture, we should ask if it is really the taste of beer or vodka that is so attractive to an impressionable teenage boy or girl?

Or is it the carefully packaged and heavily promoted myths surrounding these products to which they are continuously exposed, whether it is on the jerseys of their heroes on the sporting field, in the music videos of their favourite bands or on social media, which has been flooded with alcohol marketing.

Sophisticated campaigns promote alcohol as a positive product that is central to having fun, being popular and successful, among many other desirable things. This has an impact on our culture.

Alcohol products have become more widely available and affordable in the off-trade, particularly supermarkets, than ever before.

This has an impact on our culture.

Alcohol harm is plain for everyone in Ireland to see.

However, the intentions of the alcohol industry are often not so easy to see, as it hides in plain sight through various vehicles that preach 'awareness', 'responsibility' and 'culture change'.

The responsibility, we are told, lies with the drinker, their friends, their parents or our 'culture'.

But it seemingly never lies with the alcohol products and those who produce and promote them, while they simultaneously fight regulations designed to protect the public from alcohol harm.

Regulation is undoubtedly not as popular a concept as education, but it saves lives.

In fact, it doesn't just save lives, it can make lives better too, for everyone in a country, as we have clearly seen in Ireland in relation to drink-driving and tobacco legislation - both of which were fiercely opposed by the alcohol and tobacco industries.The 'Stop Out of Control Drinking' initiative, as reflected by its recommendations, has overlooked key steps to changing our harmful drinking culture.

Irish Independent

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