Tuesday 22 August 2017

A heavy hand is not the answer

John Greene

John Greene

The relationship between alcohol and sport is back under the spotlight following the publication last week of the latest study into substance abuse.

This study recommends that drinks industry sponsorship of sport, and other "large public events" in Ireland, should be phased out and ultimately banned by 2016.

This is not the first time in the last 10 years that a report recommending this course of action has been published in Ireland, nor is it a debate exclusive to these shores as the UK and several other countries across Europe are also embroiled in it. France, of course, has already travelled down this road by introducing a ban on television alcohol advertising. This ban includes jersey sponsorship and stadium hoarding in televised sporting fixtures, leading to the Heineken Cup being referred to in France as the H Cup, with the Heineken logo obscured.

However, the ban only covers French broadcasters. There is absolutely no legislative control over pictures and images beamed into France by outside broadcasters. And also, drinks companies are free to advertise in a stadium if the event is not being televised, or if the advert is not visible to television viewers.

The same principle would have to apply in Ireland if a similar ban were to be introduced here, and given that the influence and scope of non-Irish based broadcasters is far greater than in France, it is legitimate to wonder what would be the point, or indeed effectiveness, of such a barring order here.

Rather like the problem with imposing a betting tax, unless it can be imposed on all who operate in the Irish market then it can't be either fair or useful.

Ireland's relationship with drink is a troubled one. We repeatedly rank among the highest consumers of alcohol in Europe. There is also evidence that we rank among the highest in terms of harmful patterns of drinking, or binge drinking. Drinking has become inextricably linked with most aspects of Irish life and culture. Five years ago, as part of a paper produced for the Oireachtas on the subject of the relationship between alcohol abuse and sponsorship of sports events, TD James Breen said: "Nearly all our major steps in life, from the cradle to the grave, are marked by the use of alcohol. It has become one of the most socially acceptable drugs in Ireland and is seen to be important in our sense of 'Irishness'."

Nor have we shied away from resorting to this cliché in how we present ourselves to the world. Just think of the mileage Darren Clarke got from downing a pint of Guinness on The K Club balcony at the Ryder Cup and again how drink became central to his celebrations after winning the Open last year. It did not cause international outrage because it sat comfortably with the image and culture we have created for ourselves. (Although I often wonder what the reaction would be if, say, Alan Brogan necked a pint on the steps of the Hogan Stand after an All-Ireland final. Can you imagine the furore?)

Yet, despite our difficult relationship with alcohol, where is the clamour for the government to intervene in a heavy-handed way? Sure the drinks lobby is a powerful one, but as one report pointed out three years ago, there is some acceptance here of a laissez-faire approach.

"Popular support for public health policy on alcohol is at best equivocal. It can reasonably be concluded that the refusal of the State to introduce alcohol control policies has a democratic basis and is not just reflective of the inordinate lobbying capacity of the drinks industry."

And on this point, it was interesting to note the political silence which welcomed last week's publication of the report by a Department of Health steering group. This is in part because although the idea has been around for some time, the notion of a ban on the drinks industry sponsoring sports, or cultural, events is politically uncomfortable. Indeed, the report even points out that two government departments -- Transport, Tourism and Sport, and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht -- have already expressed disagreement with the recommendation on sport sponsorship.

There is a political realisation that at a time when the government has to bite hard into its funding of sport, introducing legislation which would bite even harder into sport revenue would create uproar. It is reckoned, for example, that for every €10 spent on sponsorship at least €6 goes into sport.

Some sporting organisations -- most notably the GAA -- have already taken a view on such sponsorship and is taking measures to increase awareness on alcohol abuse.

There is also a code of practice in operation in Ireland, designed to limit the exposure of minors to branded alcohol advertisements at major events. This, surely, is the way forward. A guiding hand is usually better than a heavy hand.

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