Sunday 20 October 2019

Alcohol giants are part of the problem - not the solution

TV doctor Ciara Kelly has stepped down from the board of the ‘Stop Out-of-Control Drinking’ campaign citing time constraints
TV doctor Ciara Kelly has stepped down from the board of the ‘Stop Out-of-Control Drinking’ campaign citing time constraints
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Stop Out-Of-Control Drinking' is not just a well-intentioned aim, it is the name of a public health campaign group. So far, so good. Except it is part-funded by Diageo and, oddly enough for an organisation touchily insisting on its independence, a director of the drinks giant sits on its board. Which leads me to my next point. How about stopping out-of-control lobbying by vested interests - wouldn't that be a more effective strategy?

Clearly, Ireland has a national drink problem, as recent St Patrick's Day revelries illustrate, with the emergency services once again called upon to deal with the fall-out from a series of alcohol-fuelled incidents, accidents and brawls.

Let's not shrug this off as drowning the shamrock and indulge in collective amnesia for another year. Drinking to dangerous excess is embedded in our culture and needs to be prised out. It starts young because it is normalised social behaviour. But the problem criss-crosses the generations, with alcohol-related illness or injury estimated to cost the State some €3.7bn annually.

Government efforts are in hand to address our damaging drinking habits, but there is a legitimate fear that industry capture is undermining them.

We call it lobbying, the industry calls it consultation. We call it conflict of interest, they call it participation. At the root of the conflict between what's good for us and what's good for them is profit maximisation. And here's the rub: how can the alcohol industry, or bodies funded by it, be trusted to promote public policies which must inevitably curb sales?

There is no doubt that inappropriate influence is wielded by alcohol companies, which have a vested interest in profits. Not in measures to reduce consumption. It is counter-intuitive to believe the industry has any genuine interest in reducing sales. Its strategy is to push the problem onto the consumer: 'It's all down to those dreadful, dreadful binge drinkers draining medical and policing resources. They're spoiling it for everyone else.' That's the industry's version of events. A highly simplistic one. Convenient, too.

Massive marketing, advertising and sponsorship budgets which encourage alcohol consumption are tolerated by legislators, and aggressive lobbying has stopped them from being reined in; meaning commercial vested interests continue to dictate the parameters of public health initiatives. For example, it suits the industry to direct intervention towards specific sectors of the population such as binge drinkers, rather than to see initiatives adopted which target entire populations - with a greater impact on sales and profits.

Proof of the alcohol industry's power, along with its focus on protecting its corner, is evident in Leo Varadkar's health bill. It intends to outlaw below-cost selling, but falls short of breaking the link between alcohol and sports sponsorship, as health experts have repeatedly urged. The watered-down bill was a score for lobbyists working on behalf of the drinks giants.

As for the 'Stop Out of Control Drinking' campaign, headed by Fergus Finlay: there is absolutely no doubt he is acting for the best of reasons but, unfortunately, his bona fides are being used by the industry to lend credibility to its self-serving agenda. Senator Jillian van Turnhout has done excellent work in highlighting the risks here. By appearing to contribute towards reform, the industry hopes to contain any real impact. No surprise, then, that just weeks in, Mr Finlay has already lost two board members: Dr Ciara Kelly, and psychologist Krystian Fikert.

Alcohol consumption is believed to be a component cause of more than 200 health problems, including several cancers and organ damage. The World Health Organisation estimates it accounts for more than 6pc of all deaths. But campaigns funded by alcohol giants are unlikely to contribute much to problem-solving in this area. Damage limitation is clearly the intention. By participating in public health campaigns, the industry hopes to sideline or downplay evidence and shape the debate.

And so a case needs to be made for more public funding to identify policies to minimise harm from alcohol, rather than leaving it to the industry to finance initiatives whose value must be open to question. When evidence-based policies are pinpointed - such as the link between drinking and sports sponsorship - they must be implemented. Law-makers cannot let themselves be distracted by the industry, which has an ulterior motive in any case it makes. Take its suggestion that excessive drinking comes down to individual choice, rather than being prompted by the wide availability and affordability of alcohol: in this instance, the industry helps to avoid focusing on proven strategies to pare back consumption.

These include volume taxes on alcohol, and scaling back trading hours and outlets. Imposing a reduction on the alcohol content of drinks might be another useful tool, tackling the sea of super-strength lagers and ciders on the shelves.

When the industry's arguments are overruled and politicians seek to legislate, the alcohol sector has no hesitation in going to the law. In Scotland, it has successfully delayed implementation of minimum pricing by issuing legal challenges within the EU. Its tactics echo those of the highly litigious tobacco industry. Resources may be scarce, but collaboration with the alcohol industry is not the way forward. It has a beneficial interest in minimising any restrictions placed on the sale of its products. That's why self-regulation hasn't worked, partnership with the industry hasn't worked, and policy has been diluted by lobbying.

Let's remember it's in the public interest to have the most effective strategies in place - not the least disadvantageous to the alcohol industry.

Irish Independent

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