As the Government pledges a crackdown on alcohol prices and marketing, Peter Cheney assesses the scale of Irish alcoholism and the differing proposals to tackle the problem.
Ministers are preparing for a step change in action to tackle alcohol abuse, after an official working group recommended radical change. Drinks industry leaders, though, are warning that many of the plans are unrealistic and populist, and will ultimately prove counter-productive.
The National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group has developed 45 recommendations to deal with a growing problem.
Key proposals include:
- minimum alcohol pricing;
- a social responsibility levy on the drinks industry;
- a ban on all outdoor advertising; and
- phasing out sponsorship of sports events (and other large public events) by 2016.
1.5 million Irish drinkers, according to government estimates, drink in a way that harms their health.
The Celtic Tiger boom years fuelled consumption and addiction, leaving a large number of poorer, younger and often unemployed drinkers in the recession years. Treatment cases for alcohol abuse rose from 5,525 to 7,866 between 2005 and 2010 (up 42.4 per cent). Two hundred and sixty-seven cases in 2010 involved children aged under 18. The patient was out of work in 76 per cent of all cases.
“The human cost of alcohol use and misuse is too stark to ignore,” Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan stated at the steering group report’s launch.
Health Minister James Reilly commented that the report “provides a comprehensive and structured approach” to dealing with the problems.
Alcohol Action Ireland’s Director, Fiona Ryan, also gave the report a broad welcome: “Recommendations around tackling pricing, availability and marketing including sponsorship are not empty policy gestures but real ways to make a difference.”
The steering group was established in December 2009 and the drinks industry has been blamed for holding up its work, but this has been rejected by the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland.
However, the federation was also opposed to the concept of a steering group in the first place and views alcohol as “a legal licensed product, which when consumed in a responsible manner can form part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle”. Furthermore, alcohol sustains 50,000-60,000 jobs.
“The report did take some time to complete but this was due to the undertaking of a full consultation and deliberation process,” a Department of Health spokesman said. He also pointed to “an opposing view of a minority” on the steering group.
Primary Care Minister Róisín Shortall and Northern Health Minister Edwin Poots plan to agree an all-Ireland minimum alcohol price by December 2012.
An Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children report published in January, goes even further. It seeks bans on:
- home deliveries of alcohol;
- alcohol advertising on social networking sites;
- the presentation and sale of alcohol alongside groceries; and
- alcohol sales in supermarkets and garages (in the long term).
The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) takes the most vocal anti-alcohol stance, having called for a total ban on alcohol advertising in 2002. In particular, on the GAA, FAI and IRFU should “cease promoting alcohol.”
As expected, the Alcohol Beverage Federation’s three main objections are:
• a lack of evidence to support some recommendations;
• the “ineffectiveness of legislation” compared to existing codes of practice;
• the “devastating impact” of several recommendations on the industry and its employees.
“We believe that responsible consumption can only come about over a period of time through a cultural change in our collective attitude towards alcohol,” its report states.
Price is not the key driver of alcohol misuse, the federation claims, and Irish alcohol prices are already high by European standards (170 per cent of the EU average).
The social responsibility levy proposal is seen as ignoring the industry’s existing finding for responsible drinking campaigns. The federation suggests that its proceeds would be sent to front-line services, rather than alcohol-free sporting and cultural events (as intended). Indeed, the IMO has demanded that proceeds should be ring-fenced for treating alcohol-related conditions.
Legislation on advertising “will simply drive advertising spend out of Ireland”. The federation claims that other factors drive consumption e.g. family, friends and personality.
The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht both opposed a ban on sponsoring events. Supporters of sponsorship fear that sport and cultural events will be damaged, with no adequate funding coming forward as a replacement.
Róisín Shortall now plans to present the steering group report to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. An action plan is expected later this year with draft proposals going to the Cabinet before the year’s end.