Sunday, February 15, 2015

Irish government fails to break the connection between sport and alcohol sponsorship

Two weeks ago the Fine Gael and Labour government published a new bill to regulate the marketing and advertising of alcohol. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill was also supposed to tackle the important issue of alcohol sponsorship of sporting events.

While many of the elements contained in the Bill are important and welcome the government was rightly criticized for failing to tackle the key issue of drinks sponsorship of sporting events. Instead of clear legislation to end drink sponsorship of sport we got waffle.

The Dáil was told that the question of sports sponsorship and the associated marketing and advertising of alcohol will be dealt with in a way that does not allow for the deliberate targeting of children.

While the problem of drink linked to children is a matter of concern it is a fact that the greatest number of citizens affected by drink sponsorship of sports are adolescents, young men and women, and older citizens.

A report three weeks from University College Cork on hazardous alcohol consumption involving students – not children - concluded that we need a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports events. The lead researcher of the study warned that ‘without support at the highest levels for evidence based policy attempts to tackle Ireland’s hazardous relationship with alcohol may prove futile.’

The human and financial cost of alcohol abuse within society is also well established. It has long been recognised that sponsorship of sport by alcohol companies encourages a culture of alcohol misuse. Consequently, there is widespread public support for the proposition that the government should break the connection between alcohol and sport sponsorship.

Professor Joe Barry of Alcohol Action Ireland has said that: “Comprehensive studies have shown that children and young people are not only exposed to a large amount of alcohol advertising through sports sponsorship, but that their behaviour and beliefs are influenced by these positive messages about alcohol and its use, increasing the likelihood that they will start to drink and drink more if already using alcohol.

Simply put, alcohol sponsorship of sport works in terms of increasing sales and, as a result, alcohol consumption. If it didn’t, the alcohol industry simply would not be spending so much money on it.”

The reality is that the linking of a healthy activity, such as a sport, with an unhealthy product, such as alcohol, diminishes the concern that some may have that alcohol is unhealthy and unacceptable.

Some 60,000 teenagers start drinking every year. These young people are most at risk. They are susceptible to the belief – encouraged by alcohol advertising – that drinking alcohol is sophisticated and acceptable.

Sport is hugely important in the lives of citizens. Many take part but most participate through attending GAA matches; or soccer; or rugby; or the many other sports activities that take place every week. Sport is hugely important in providing for a healthy lifestyle but it also plays a significant role in encouraging values like fairness and teamwork. This is undermined and devalued through sports connections with alcohol – just as it was when tobacco companies used to sponsor sporting events.

The misuse of alcohol leads to domestic violence, abuse, premature deaths, road crashes and deaths and injuries, rapes and suicides. A recent report from the Health Research Board   said that the role of alcohol in accidental deaths is not fully appreciated. It found that for the years 2008-2009 there were 388 deaths, not including suicide, due to alcohol poisoning and deaths due to trauma, eg drowning, falls, road accidents.

The connection between alcohol use and suicide has been highlighted in numerous reports, both Irish and international. One study of people from three counties who died as a result of suicide found that more than half had alcohol in their blood; those aged less than 30 were more likely to have had alcohol in their blood at the time of death.

All of us know individuals or families blighted by the effect of alcoholism. The human cost to each is huge – the financial cost to the state in terms of our health service - is enormous.

Two weeks ago Leo Varadkar the Minister for Health published his 25 'health priorities'.One of these is to reduce alcohol consumption. However the failure of the government to ban the sponsorship of sporting events by alcohol companies, undermines much of the good that may come out of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill or the related Sale of Alcohol Bill.

The government’s failure to step up to the mark and ban alcohol sponsorship of sporting events is a disgraceful response to a very serious issue. It is a decision that flies in the face of all of the available medical evidence and smacks of a government acquiescing to pressure from the drinks industry. It also ignores clear evidence that the drinks industry deliberately exploits sport to promote alcohol.

A study of 6,600 adolescents in four European countries, published in December 2012 by Amphora, an initiative of the European Commission, found that ‘Alcohol-branded sport sponsorship influences alcohol consumption among adolescents. Exposure to sport sponsoring can predict future drinking’.

Recently, Mick Loftus a former GAA President pointed out that; “Sponsorship of sport creates this culture that you cannot enjoy life without a drink, which is wrong and leads to problems like binge drinking. As a doctor and a former coroner, I know first-hand the damage alcohol does. Eighty-eight people a month die in this country due to alcohol related reasons. If that number of people were dying any other way they would be taking all sorts of action to try and stop it, but instead they are promoting it. If money comes before people, then it’s a sad day.”

The government has abdicated its responsibility to protect our young people and to tackle the serious problem of alcohol misuse.

Moreover it appears to have done it because, as the Minister for Health said last week, the sports organisations need the €30 million that such deals bring in.

It would appear that the Cabinet chose to ignore all of the available medical advice, scrapped the proposal to break the connection between sport and alcohol, and all to save money.

The government’s lack of action on this also raises the spectre for many citizens that the alcohol companies lobby of government was successful and that the drinks industry is exercising an undue and disproportionate influence on government to prevent any ban from going ahead.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the matter. It is possible to amend the Bill in the Dáil. But given its overwhelming majority and its obvious refusal to deal with the issue of drinks sponsorship and alcohol in writing the Bill it is unlikely that the government will agree to any substantial amendment on this issue.

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