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Faux shock at drink company promoting responsibility from a country of hypocritical drinkers

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Diageo boss David Smith

Diageo boss David Smith

Diageo boss David Smith

Diageo stepped down from the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign board on Wednesday, after director David Smith said there had been "a lot of pressure on other board members" because of his presence.

Stop Out-of-Control Drinking, which was established last month to develop a new strategy to reduce alcohol abuse, has been criticised as it is funded by Diageo, one of the biggest alcohol producers in the world. 'Operation Transformation' GP Ciara Kelly left earlier this month citing "time constraints". She says she initially "voiced my scepticism of the Diageo campaign but I went with it" and has since called Diageo the "Achilles' heel" of the campaign (although who should fund it - our overstretched state?).

Fergus Finlay has said: "Diageo's role is to pay the bill. The campaign is independent."

Yet despite long-running ads asking drinkers not to consume too much Smirnoff - or any of Diageo's other top brands - it has always had a very hard job convincing us sceptical Irish that a drinks company could possibly have our best interests at heart when it comes to alcohol misuse. It shouldn't. Our binge-drinking ways threaten the reputation and profitability of the entire industry. But hysteria about binge drinking appears to have similar effects to binge drinking itself. It impairs judgment, loosens sensible inhibitions and ensures debates around the issue are always shrouded in moral outrage.

Manufacturers of alcoholic drinks, and those who sell them, are faced with a dilemma. They make money by selling as much alcohol as possible, but risk the wrath of regulatory forces and the loss of their licences if they allow consumption to spiral out of control.

It's in their interest to promote responsible drinking to avoid more stringent regulation, licensing laws or taxes. And since our entire drinks industry employs 92,000 people and exports €1.25bn worth of produce every year, it's an issue that could damage the entire economy too.

It is in Diageo's own self-interest to repair our out-of-control drinking habits and foster more positive connotations for its products, to co-operate with the Government rather than fight battles they are bound ultimately to lose. I'm not saying that the drinks industry should go unchallenged. It is right that social and political pressure should be brought to bear on those who market alcohol irresponsibly.

But it seems that all this controversy is just another part of our hypocritical attitudes towards alcohol. Most of us have our first experiences of alcohol in secret, drinking lukewarm beer in the garage of a friend who has an older brother. An alcoholic is someone we don't like who drinks as much as we do.

We've created a society that tells parents not to let their children see them drink, and the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, "sure I'll just go for the one" attitude that surrounds drinking. There is a faux shock that a drinks company might want us to drink responsibly and you end up with a country of hypocritical drinkers whose habits are going to be tough to educate or legislate away.

It's certainly true the Irish are no slouches when it comes to drinking and alcoholism is a problem in Irish society. Flotillas of figures show the damage done by drink is increasing. Even so, whatever about the tendencies of the Irish to overindulge in drink, they are not wildly at variance with drinking patterns elsewhere.

Irish people over the age of 15 on average drink 11.9 litres of pure alcohol a year, according to WHO's Global Status Report for 2014. That places us at number 21 in the world and surprisingly below France: the French consume 12.9 litres a year. Not that those patterns are exactly healthy either. For the moment, Diageo has gone and a few more board members might head for the hills. The rest of us will remain judgemental and hypocritical. Little wonder we're driven to drink.

Irish Independent