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Alison O’Connor: Taking drink out of our sporting events requires an iron will

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We are broke –
so how do we
spend so much
on alcohol?

We are broke – so how do we spend so much on alcohol?

We are broke – so how do we spend so much on alcohol?

We are economically bust, but how is it that we manage to maintain a national booze habit that costs the State upwards of €3.7bn a year?

It's stating the bleedin' obvious to say that we could desperately do with that sort of money, but there isn't a smidgin of outrage at the enormous price we pay for our national drinking habit.

Tonight and every night in Ireland, 2,000 beds in our acute hospitals are being occupied by people with problems directly related to alcohol. In our emergency departments a quarter of injuries are a result of drink.

At a time when we are counting every single cent that is being spent by the Exchequer, how do we tolerate a situation where alcohol-related illness costs the State €1.2bn and alcohol-related crime €1.19bn. Those numbers are probably higher since those statistics, and others like them, were gathered by the Department of Health in 2007.

Let's propose a toast then to junior minister Roisin Shortall, a woman who is going to need a lot more than good luck if she is to succeed in her crusade to get Irish people to drink less.

This week Ms Shortall announced in the Dail that she is to end alcohol sponsorship of sport. She allowed that it would happen over a reasonable period of time, but nevertheless the intention is that it will happen. It could, I understand, take up to a decade for this to take total effect.

This proposal would form part of an alcohol action plan currently being developed by the Department of Health, which should be brought before the Cabinet later in the summer.

The plan is based on the report of the National Substance Misuse Steering Group, published earlier this year. Its recommendations included the ban on all alcohol sponsorship of sporting and large outdoor events, as well as a ban on outdoor advertising of alcohol, higher excise duties on some alcohol products and the introduction of minimum pricing.

The drinks industry doesn't say how much it spends on sponsorship. According to some estimates, they pay €40m for those chest-size beer and stout logos our sportpeople (including children) wear on their shirts.

There is no room for ambivalence in our approach, Ms Shortall told the Dail. This sort of talk may drive those who rail against the "nanny state" even wilder, but it is only a will of iron that will get these policies through.

The junior minister is doing to rounds of her Cabinet colleagues at the moment and by all accounts the response is a little mixed. There is understandable nervousness given how sports clubs, with the reduction in National Lottery funding, are more dependent than ever on sponsorship.

It would appear the junior minister stood on the toe of Sports Minister Leo Varadkar by making her announcement and not advising him of it in advance. In an interview on Radio Kerry he spoke of how there had been no "Cabinet" decision on this and how other ministers such as those in charge of tourism, arts, sport and the food industry, would have a view.

Sorry, Leo -- some situations call for a brass neck, otherwise the changes simply don't happen. Strong and unequivocal signals are needed here.

Then there are the pernicious efforts of the drinks industry to ensure that the status quo is maintained.

Alcohol companies have a huge amount of clout, not least that they are large employers in Ireland and they have built up a serious cunning when it comes to protecting their patch.

Ms Shortall recently met six of the seven universities in Ireland to discuss how alcohol consumption on the various campuses could be reduced. Those six were apparently very keen to co-operate and there were tales of students consuming vast quantities of alcohol, which in turn affected their studies and resulted in mental health issues.

We need look no further than the study just released by youth mental health organisation Headstrong, and psychologists at University College Dublin, to see that young Irish people who drink to excess are much more likely to suffer mental problems.

The first in-depth study of youth mental health found that almost 40pc of young adults had problematic or harmful drinking habits and a further 7pc had signs of alcohol dependence, according to the survey of 14,000 teenagers and young adults.

Now it is totally reasonable that the Government is caught up with this recession and passing EU treaties, and other economy-related issues.

They spend a lot of time telling us now of what we can't afford and what we cannot do. We frequently hear of how we have no control of our own destiny. However, this is a perfect example of something extremely valuable and money saving that is absolutely within our grasp and would actually ultimately save the State money.

Irish Independent