John Greene: State can benefit by filling gap in market
In February 2012 the National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group published a report into the use and misuse of alcohol in Ireland. The 84-page report contained a total of 45 recommendations to, as Dr Tony Holohan put it at the time, "tackle the harm caused to individuals and society from alcohol use and misuse".
"The human cost of alcohol use and misuse is too stark to ignore," Dr Holohan, who chaired the steering group, said.
One of the 45 recommendations has attracted the lion's share of attention since, so much so that you might be forgiven for thinking it had been the only one in the report, and that is introducing a ban on drinks sponsorship of sport by 2016. Other recommendations included increasing the price of alcohol to make it less affordable, introducing a 'social responsibility' levy on the drinks industry, a ban on all outdoor drinks advertising, a 9.0pm watershed for advertising on television and radio, a national screening and early intervention system, stricter codes for drinks advertisements in print media, a ban on festival sponsorship and greater monitoring of licensing laws.
But the prospect of a ban on breaking the flow of cash from the drinks industry into sport was the one which captured the greatest attention and, reportedly, caused the greatest friction in Cabinet, which was split on the issue. There is no prospect at this stage of a ban being in place by 2016, but a phasing out of drinks sponsorship is still on the table.
The country's three main sporting organisations appeared before an Oireachtas committee last week to outline their objections to such a ban. And the FAI's John Delaney, the GAA's Páraic Duffy and the IRFU's Philip Browne were all giving the same message: that such a ban would be a disaster for sport.
At a time when sports funding from the State is on the decrease, and sponsorship from the private sector is also on the decrease, sport in Ireland cannot afford to lose the money it gets from the drinks industry. This has been estimated to total around €30m. "Taking such actions," said John Delaney, "with no evidence also means cuts to programmes because sponsorship is much harder to come by than some would have you believe, and a restriction on sponsorship by drinks companies simply would not be replaced."
At last week's committee hearing, Philip Browne said the IRFU's revenue from beverage sponsorship was approximately €9m. To put that figure in context, the Union spends just over €9m a year on the domestic game. He said that for every €1 it receives from the Government for youth development, the Union puts in €3.
"This goes right down to grassroots sport," said Browne, "and we need to be very careful we don't unravel something which is very good and very positive for the health of the nation."
All three argued that there is no evidence linking this sponsorship to the misuse of alcohol. They said they use the money they get to promote participation and development at youth and grassroots level.
They also argued that those beverage companies which sponsor sport in Ireland are doing so in competition against each other, to get greater market share in a declining market. Beer sales have reportedly fallen 15 per cent in Ireland in the last five years. Páraic Duffy said that if these companies cannot sponsor sport, they will find other ways of spending their money.
"The elimination of alcohol sponsorship from sport will deliver no real benefits," said Duffy. "It will simply increase financial pressure on sporting bodies and their clubs. We firmly believe that the solution lies in a renewed focus on educating our population to adopt a more positive attitude to the use of alcohol and through Government passing legislation to make access to alcohol more difficult and expensive for young people."
Ultimately, the sponsorship issue will boil down to one thing: money. And Delaney, Duffy and Browne admitted as much. If the Government is prepared to facilitate the phasing out of drinks sponsorship with a soft landing, primarily by using its own funds to bridge the shortfall, then sporting bodies will be happy. But what are the chances of that? Even though there is actually a very sound financial argument to be made for it, not to mention the health grounds.
A figure of €3bn has been put as the annual cost to the State of alcohol-related problems, from health costs to crime. One per cent of that is €30m, the amount said to be spent on sponsorship by the drinks industry. If the Government took over that €30m, the view is that the net saving to the public purse could be far greater.
Perhaps this is the direction the debate needs to take, instead of trying to back Irish sporting organisations – large and small – into a corner. They are not the bad guys.