Working to reduce alcohol harm

Opinion: The first step to fixing Ireland’s alcohol problem? Fight back against the drinks industry

ALCOHOL KILLS ABOUT 3.3 million people every year, or 5.9 per cent of all deaths globally, a new report by the World Health Organisation notes. It is also linked to over 200 disease and injury conditions and is associated, for example, with liver cirrhosis, cancers, and alcohol dependence.

From thejournal.ie

The Irish drink a lot, and in particular, binge drinking is very high here compared to other countries, at 39 per cent of people. Alcohol Action Ireland remarked that this ’puts Ireland just behind Austria with 40.5 per cent at the top of the 194 countries studied and well ahead of our neighbours in Britain at 28 per cent’.

The costs are large. Almost 10 per cent of Irish children say that their parents’ use of alcohol has negative effects on their lives, for a total of 110,000 children. As many as 25 per cent of injuries admissions to hospitals’ emergency departments are related to alcohol, which is also strongly linked to suicide, especially among young men. 88 deaths every month in Ireland are directly caused by alcohol, along with 1,200 cases of cancer each year. One in four deaths of men younger than 40 years old is due to alcohol, as are a third of road accidents. 2,000 hospital beds are occupied for reasons related to alcohol, and treating related injuries and diseases costs about €1.2 billion, or 8.5 per cent of the annual health care budget.

Moreover, the health and crime problems linked to alcohol cost us €3.7 billion a year. If we reduced by 30 per cent the harms caused, the exchequer would save €1 billion. Cheap alcohol is a problem as a man can reach his low risk weekly limit by spending less than €10 and a woman €6.30.

The insidious nature of the drinks industry  

We know well how to deal with alcohol problems. It’s not because people think things are fine. There is a strong belief, held by 85 per cent of Irish people, that current alcohol consumption in Ireland is too high, as a Health Research Board survey found. 72 per cent said that they know someone who in their opinion, drinks too much. And 78 per cent believe the government has a responsibility to implement measures to protect public health from high levels of alcohol consumption.

The solution is evidence-based policies. There are a range of measures that have been proven to be effective by systematic scholarly and policy research. For example, although the government has yet to introduce the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, it contains important policies such as the implementation of minimum pricing to reduce consumption and stricter regulation of the marketing of alcohol.

The drinks industry itself is lobbying hard against any rules that would limit its freedom and profits. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Irish Times reveal how it was successful in its recent attempt to dissuade the government from banning the sponsorship of sports events. Diageo, the industry giant, sent letters to the highest levels of government explaining corporate concerns, in addition to lobbying from industry groups like the Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society, the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland, the Irish Distillers, and the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland, a division of IBEC (Irish Business and Employers Confederation).

Push back against the drinks industry  

Whatever the industry says, advertising, and in particular sponsorship of sports and cultural events, has negative impacts. Firms’ internal marketing documents have confirmed that sponsorship is designed to build emotional connections with consumers that translate into higher consumption. One document states that the industry targets young female drinkers who hopefully ’will drink bucket loads of the stuff‘, which is a ’perfect social lubricant’. Another seeks to give young males ’a reason to believe in the product whilst building an emotional connection to the “Vivid me” state’ and ’create emotional experiences for young male drinkers’.

A number of systematic reviews have demonstrated that alcohol advertising encourages young people to drink sooner and in larger quantities. A recent study of over 6,600 teenagers in four European countries on the effects of alcohol sponsorship of sport events found that ’Seeing more alcohol-branded sport sponsorship increases the likelihood that adolescents (start to) drink and increases the frequency of using alcohol’. This is because ’When adolescents expect that alcohol will make them feel less negative, more positive, aroused and relaxed because of alcohol-branded sport sponsorship, they are more likely to drink alcohol more frequently’.

In short, the problems and solutions are known””all that remains to be done is to push back against the drinks industry.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at UCD working on drugs and the economic crisis. His book The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the Irish Economic Crisis will be out in August. Follow him on Twitter at @JulienMercille