Friday 6 December 2019

Alcohol ad issue calls for united approach

John Greene

'We as a society can no longer tolerate the level of alcohol abuse in this country, particularly among young people. There is no room for ambivalence in our approach.'

These are the words of Róisín Shortall, the Minister of State for Health, during a Dáil debate last week on a new survey which made pretty unsettling findings about the drinking habits of young Irish people.

The UCD School of Psychology teamed up with Headstrong, the national centre for youth mental health, to survey 14,306 young people aged between 12 and 25.

Nearly half of all senior year students in secondary school and almost two-thirds of those aged between 17 and 25 reported drinking habits considered to be outside the normal range by the WHO. And the survey also found that depression, anxiety and stress were found to be significantly higher when young people engaged in harmful drinking or were classified as possibly alcohol-dependent.

The difficulty, however, is that when this report made its way to the Dáil chamber, it became as much a discussion about alcohol sponsorship in sport as it did about the problem itself. Politicians love to take things in isolation, and break them down to the lowest common denominator to be lapped up by a grateful media. And so this report, with its fairly shocking insights into the mental health of this country's young people -- including high instances of self-harm and severe financial distress -- was stripped right down.

Fianna Fáil TD Charlie McConalogue asked: "Will the Minister of State clarify if the Government intends to ban alcohol advertising in sports events?"

And the minister replied that the government is keen to introduce a number of measures, including minimum pricing. But then she added: "We also know that when it comes to young people, sports advertising and sponsorship by alcohol companies is effective. That is why so much money is put into it. I am committed to phasing out that over a reasonable period of time. There are contractual arrangements in place and I am working with the different national sporting bodies to agree a proposal to phase out that over a period of time."

Which is all well and good in an ideal world, when there is a plentiful supply of money from the public and private sectors to help fund sporting activity. But on both fronts, money to fund sport -- from elite level right down to the grassroots -- is drying up and there are only certain industries which can be relied upon now to fill the gap, and the drinks industry is one of those.

The trouble with idealism, the saying goes, is that it increases in direct proportion to one's distance from the problem. If you close off this avenue of funding for sport at a time when its state funding is also falling sharply, the long-term effect will impact on the physical and mental health of young people. It is difficult to see quite where the gain would be, and easy to see that one set of problems will simply be replaced by another.

A report published in February found that alcohol marketing led to young people starting to drink at a younger age. This report, from a Department of Health steering group, recommended that drinks industry sponsorship of sport, and other "large public events", should be banned by 2016. Equally, there have been studies on the positive impact of participating in sport on young people, and their health and well-being.

There isn't even political agreement on a blanket ban -- two government departments have expressed disagreement with it. Shortall's cabinet colleague Leo Varadkar has said sports organisations have, at the very least, to be given a long run in to any ban to allow them find other sources of income.

Of course it is possible to make distinctions between the different types of alcohol sponsorship in sport and tackle the more crude and overt forms, of which the naming rights for competitions -- such as the Heineken Cup -- particularly stand out.

The best way forward at the moment is to get all sporting organisations on the same page: agree to a strict code of conduct, promote awareness campaigns among their young members, and not allow their games to be homogenised.

Subtle intervention can be more effective than diktats at times like this.

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