Varadkar: Alcohol campaign concerns are not my problem
Health Minister Leo Varadkar has said a drink awareness campaign backed by alcohol giant Diageo is not his problem, saying it doesn't need his permission.
Mr Varadkar, speaking from Mexico last night, strongly rejected calls from an Independent Senator Jillian van Turnhout to clarify his position on the controversial campaign.
Speaking to the Irish Independent Mr Varadkar said: "This is a free country and nobody needs permission from government to campaign on any issue.
"I have had no contact with the Stop Out of Control Drinking campaign. This is actually the first time anyone has asked my opinion on it."
He added: "The campaign is not backed by me or the Government. It has not sought backing or official endorsement."
Mr Varadkar said his focus is on getting the Public Health Alcohol Bill through the Oireachtas before the end of the year.
"It is the first public health legislation on alcohol ever and the most far-reaching. It will be a key step forward in bringing alcohol consumption in Ireland down to the average level for the Western world," he added.
Ms van Turnhout, a former Children's Right Alliance CEO, had called on Mr Varadkar to state whether he supported the campaign, which is backed by Diageo.
She described Mr Varadkar's response as "disappointing".
"I can understand that as a minister he can't tell civil society what they can and can't do.
"But I was hoping he might echo the statement from the World Health Organisation which says public health policies on alcohol need to be formulated by public health interests, without interference from commercial interests," she told the Irish Independent.
She said the 'Out of Control' campaign, initiated and part-funded by Diageo, is a "smokescreen" against the Government's intention to bring the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill in to law.
Ms van Turnhout said the firm's involvement is highly questionable.
"It's no coincidence that, just as Ireland is about to do something, this comes along, and drinkaware.ie is renewed and starts up a schools programme," she said.
Ms van Turnhout said the drinks industry should not be involved in public health campaigns to the extent they are with this.
She said that if Diageo had given the money away to an existing group and said 'do whatever you want', that would be one thing. "But they set it up, they sit on the board, and they fund it," she added.
A campaign spokesman said the initiative is entirely focused on reducing dangerous drinking in Ireland and is not a replacement for other legal changes.
He said criticism is "premature" before the group draws up a report in July on what needs to be done.
Two weeks ago, a key member of the new campaign resigned. Dr Ciara Kelly, a GP and commentator, stepped down from the Stop Out of Control Drinking campaign three weeks after it was unveiled, "due to time constraints".
A second board member, Krystian Fikert, from the MyMind charity, also stepped down.