Friday 23 February 2018

Doctor's orders: Forget the controversy and concentrate on the problem

The row about drinks industry involvement in the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign shouldn't stop us confronting our attitudes to alcohol

Grim portrayal: Mickey Rourke's character hits the bottle in Barfly
Grim portrayal: Mickey Rourke's character hits the bottle in Barfly

Ciara Kelly

The Stop Out-of- Control Drinking campaign has generated more debate since its launch in February than they could've ever envisaged. Much of the publicity has been negative however, focusing on its funding by drinks industry giant Diageo and the presence on its board of Diageo country director David Smith. From the outset, this undermined public confidence, meaning its message was not heard. David Smith resigned from the board last month - so will that save the campaign?

I actually hope so, because I believe a campaign challenging our attitudes to alcohol, is very important. Stop Out-Of-Control Drinking is attempting to examine Irish drink culture - to hold up a mirror to our drinking habits. And while some people may dismiss that because of Diageo's involvement, equally some people are all too happy to dismiss it because they don't want to see the reflection.

Of course the drinks industry has enormous culpability when it comes to the fact that two thirds of Irish adults drink to excess - out- of-control advertising encourages out-of-control drinking. It's the job of Government to rein in the drinks industry through legislation and regulation - and it could go much further with this, by banning alcohol sponsorship of sporting events for example. But is the drinks industry solely responsible?

We'd love to think so, but we also need to take ownership of our own role and question our national relationship with booze. Because it's my view that while it remains so socially acceptable or even desirable to be blind drunk here, we'll never address our issues with alcohol. This is what Fergus Finlay and the board are attempting to do, to look at and challenge our drinking culture and I believe it's to their credit that they're doing something unpopular because they believe it to be right. (I joined the board the week before it launched, but resigned shortly after due to time constraints.)

Diageo spends €30m on advertising and gave €1m to the campaign so we know where their priorities lie - sales, market share and share price is what motivates big business. But I'm not particularly interested in what motivates Diageo. If it got involved as a PR exercise - it has backfired spectacularly. And the campaign has inadvertently been responsible for more probing conversations about the drinks industry than ever heard before.

But personally I'm more interested in what motivates the 1.6m Irish people who have harmful drinking patterns. Because I believe there's more to it than big business manipulating us. We have a long-standing culture of excessive drinking, and the generations behind us are falling in with it. And what I'm willing to accept for myself is not something I want to see foisted on my children. Peer pressure more than advertising pressure is at work amongst our teens. But to be very clear, it isn't only young people in Ireland who have a problem with drink. Middle-aged and older people binge drink too.

Fergus Finlay, through his work for Barnardos, sees the havoc alcohol wreaks in Irish children's lives. Half of all couples in relationship difficulties here cite alcohol as the number one cause of their problems. Half. Think about that, about all those children whose families have been destroyed by drink.

Think of our suicide rates, so high among our young men. Two thirds of young Irish men drink to excess, which gives them eight times the risk of committing suicide as compared to young men in countries where booze is not an issue. Think of all those families destroyed by drink.

Alcohol is the single biggest risk factor for death among young Irish men under 30 through assaults and accidents as well as suicides. Think of all those young men's families - destroyed by drink.

You tell me - is it not high time we started talking about this?


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