Wednesday 18 September 2019

Public health isn't a priority for profit-driven alcohol industry

We, as a nation, need to tack our complex relationship with alcohol
We, as a nation, need to tack our complex relationship with alcohol

Suzanne Costello

FOR the first time, an Irish Government has decided to treat our harmful relationship with alcohol as a public health problem in an effort to bring about positive change in a society where binge drinking and drunkenness has become normal, accepted behaviour.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, being drafted by the Department of Health, represents an important first step in this regard. Of particular importance are those evidence-based policy measures that target the key areas of alcohol pricing, marketing and availability.

These measures are opposed by the alcohol industry for the simple reason that to reduce alcohol-related harm in Ireland we have to reduce our overall alcohol consumption, which is clearly not in its interest.

In these pages last week, Kathryn D'Arcy, director of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI), referred to the "minority" who misuse alcohol in Ireland.

This assertion doesn't just completely contradict the well-documented evidence that shows that the majority of Irish people who drink do so in a hazardous manner – seven out of 10 men and four out of 10 women exceed their low-risk weekly limit – but also the daily reality for the people of Ireland.

Three people die every day in Ireland from alcohol-related harm, while 2,000 hospital beds are filled by people with alcohol-related illnesses. Chronic alcohol-related conditions are increasing rapidly among the young. Alcohol is a key driver of mental health issues, it's a factor in half of all suicides and four out of 10 cases of self-harm; it's a major driver of crime, including assaults and public order offences; and is one of the primary causes of child welfare and protection issues in Ireland.

The alcohol industry also reference a study indicating that drinking 1.5 "standard glasses" of alcohol a day can reduce a person's risk of cancer. In my opinion this is misleading information when presented in isolation, considering the large body of evidence on the cancer risk associated with alcohol – which is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The National Cancer Control Programme found that 500 deaths each year in Ireland are due to alcohol-related cancers. Most importantly, the overall effect of drinking – even moderate drinking – in relation to cancer risk has been shown to be harmful and there is certainly no proven protective effect.

As pointed out by the Irish Cancer Society, "alcohol increases the risk of cancer in both men and women; the more alcohol you drink, the higher the risk". If the alcohol industry is not even prepared to accept that we have a serious societal problem with alcohol, then how can it be part of the solution?

The ABFI was one of two alcohol industry bodies represented on the Steering Group for the National Substance Misuse Strategy, where they voiced their opposition to the evidence-based recommendations concerning the pricing, marketing and availability of alcohol – measures which international evidence demonstrates will be effective in reducing alcohol-related harm in Ireland. The alcohol industry, as reflected in ABFI's Minority Report on the National Substance Misuse Strategy, is opposed to the introduction of statutory regulation in Ireland, preferring instead the existing systems of self-regulation, which have proven to be ineffective with regard to public health.

The objective of the alcohol industry is to maximise its profits through the sale of its products and it is legally entitled to do so.

However, the Government has a responsibility to prioritise the health of the Irish people. The conflicting interests of private profit and public health cannot be reconciled when it comes to addressing our harmful relationship with alcohol.

The alcohol industry seeks a role for itself in policy areas that extend far beyond their responsibilities as producers and retailers of alcohol and in which they have no expertise.

They call for "a whole of society approach" because it would provide an opportunity for them to influence the policy agenda in ways that favour their business interests.

World Health Organisation director general Dr Margaret Chan, pictured, has made it clear that "the alcohol industry has no role in the formulation of alcohol policies, which must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests".

Based on their refusal to acknowledge the evidence regarding alcohol-related harm in Ireland, their lack of support for effective alcohol-harm reduction policies and their persistent lobbying against the introduction of public health measures that have the potential to save lives and make Ireland a healthier and safer place in which to live, Dr Chan is right.

Our Government and all those genuinely concerned with reducing alcohol-related harm in Ireland must resist the pressure the alcohol industry will continue to exert in relation to the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill and other measures that will reduce this harm.

SUZANNE COSTELLO IS CEO ALCOHOL ACTION IRELAND.

Irish Independent

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