Alcohol Action Ireland’s Oireachtas address to the Joint Committee on Health and Children

Deputy Buttimer and committee members, thank you for having us here today. My name is Fiona Ryan and I am the director of Alcohol Action Ireland, the national charity for alcohol-related issues. In the course of our presentation you will be hearing from our board member Dr Bobby Smyth, who is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, working full time with adolescents who have substance use disorders. He is also the lead author of College of Psychiatry of Ireland’s position paper calling for a ban on alcohol advertising and sponsorship.

A brief note on Alcohol Action Ireland whom some of you may not have heard of before today. Alcohol Action Ireland campaigns to raise awareness of alcohol-related harm and the policy solutions needed to respond to that harm. We are on the steering group of the National Substance Misuse Strategy and have been campaigning for alcohol prices to be tackled. We are particularly interested in the welfare and protection of children and young people at risk of harm through their own drinking or the drinking of others.

We’ve been invited here to discuss with you the issues of alcohol marketing and minimum pricing and in particular how they affect young people. While both issues might seem separate they are in fact closely related. Certainly the alcohol industry when devising strategies to market an alcohol product do so by using a mix of what are termed the 4 ps – product, price, place and promotion.

Alcohol Marketing and Young People

There is a wealth of scientific evidence to support the fact that alcohol marketing influences young people’s behaviour to drink. The Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum found that alcohol marketing increased the likelihood of young people who aren’t drinking starting to drink and those are drinking, to drink more.

Last year, we commissioned a leading market research company to gauge young people’s awareness of alcohol branding and marketing. The young people in question ranged from 16 to 21 and the research found:

  • Five out of 10 of their favourite ads were alcohol ads indicating a high memory recall
  • 39% of them owned an item of alcohol branded clothing – yet only 1% of them when asked thought this was a source of advertising
  • Of the 83% of 16 and 17-year-olds who had a social networking page such as Bebo or Facebook; 30% of them had received an alcohol pop-up or quiz on that page; for young people this is a private space where they communicate with their friends and family

Alcohol sponsorship of sports events in this country is around €75 million, actual paid for advertising is somewhere around €65 million but these are the local editions of globalised brands. The alcohol marketing spend in the UK is closer to  £800 million. A global giant like Heineken is reckoned to spend over €2 billion a year on marketing.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: what is this multi-million Euro spend for? It is fundamentally to sell more alcohol and increase share-holder profit, to ensure that new consumers ie young people develop a brand loyalty since all marketers know that it is easier to recruit new consumers than to get existing consumers to switch brand.

Even if you accept that the alcohol industry isn’t deliberately targeting young people of pre-legal drinking age, I would point out that Professor Gerard Hastings of Stirling University, who testified before a UK parliamentary committee similar to this, found that wasn’t always the case, the fact remains that marketing aimed at 18-year-olds will spill over to 16 and 17-year-olds. Even if 18-year-olds are of legal drinking age – is it still acceptable that they are exposed to this 24/7 surround sound and vision of alcohol advertising and promotion?

Our current codes have the stated aim of reducing young people’s exposure to alcohol marketing but the fact remains that no one has a baseline understanding of young people’s awareness of or exposure to that marketing. So while you will hear about compliance, it is compliance with codes that cannot even support their own stated aim. The same code allows for alcohol advertising to be featured in programmes where there is not more than 25% of an under-age viewership ie children. Children make up a quarter of the population and so what it means in reality is that alcohol advertising can be broadcast at anytime with the exception of a defined breakfast period as long as the 25% rule is followed. My colleague Dr. Bobby Smyth will show later how even that audience profiling is erroneous.

The codes are woefully inadequate when it comes to dealing with digital media and it should be noted that this is an area where the alcohol industry is pumping a massive amount of its marketing resources. Facebook recently announced a deal with Diageo – you only have to be aged 13 to have a Facebook page. To quote from The Financial Times reporting of the deal:

Diageo has been using Facebook for advertising and promotions for more than a year and has found through Nielsen basket-scanning research that certain campaigns for brands including Smirnoff and Baileys boosted offline purchases by as much as 20 per cent in the US.

Diageo’s senior vice-president of global marketing and innovation:

“Facebook are working with us to make sure that we are not only fan collecting but that they are actively engaged and driving advocacy for our brands. We are looking for increases in customer engagement and increases in sales and [market] share.”

Diageo has increased its budget for digital marketing by 50 per cent to just under 20 per cent of its total media spending.

Meanwhile Heineken has also been busy on the technology front signing a multi-million Euro deal to partner with the search engine Google which owns the phenomenally popular You Tube.

The Financial Times reports that in exchange for committing to a minimum amount of advertising investment across Google’s sites, Heineken will be given access to special consultancy, data and discounts from the search company. Heineken’s annual marketing budget is estimated at €2.17 billion annually with 4 percent or €87 million is spent on digital marketing. This figure is now likely to go up.

To say that our alcohol marketing codes are inadequate in dealing with the digital marketing of alcohol is to put it mildly. We need to re-think how we regulate alcohol marketing otherwise we may as well be designing codes for advertising on transistor radios in the era of the ipad.

Government needs to accept its responsibility and introduce statutory regulations around advertising, alcohol placement and pricing.

Alcohol Pricing

As I said at the beginning, pricing is an integral part of alcohol marketing. We circulated our pre budget submission to you in advance of the meeting which outlines the case for minimum pricing. The premise is pretty simple – if you want to reduce alcohol-related harm across a society then you need to reduce overall levels of consumption. If you want to reduce consumption you need to tackle price. This isn’t just Alcohol Action Ireland making this statement – it’s a key strand of the World Health Organisation’s strategy for reducing alcohol-related harm. Harm which:

  • costs us an estimated €3.7 billion a year – €1.2 billion in crime and €1.2 billion in health
  • is responsible for one person dying every seven hours

You’re probably going to hear this morning that alcohol consumption is reducing, the latest available information puts us at 11.9 litres which works out at 45 bottles of vodka or 125 bottles of wine. Now if we were all drinking at our low risk weekly limit that figure would be approximately 3 litres less. But that fact is we are not. Half of us are drinking at levels harmful to our health. If any more proof were needed then take a look at the results from the Health Research Board ‘Treated problem alcohol use in Ireland 2005-2010’.

Figures from the National Drug Treatment Reporting System (NDTRS) show that the number of cases of treated problem alcohol use rose 43% in the period between 2005 and 2010. There were 42,333* cases treated for problem alcohol use in those six years. Half of the treated cases had started drinking by the time they were 16; Half of all cases treated were aged 39 years or younger and there was a 145% increase in new cases aged under 18.

Why are harms going up? There is a tendency in Ireland when we talk about alcohol misuse to focus exclusively on young people but we know that this does not reflect the reality of the situation. To repeat, half of us are drinking at harmful levels. The fact is alcohol is relatively more affordable and available than it has ever been before. The RAND report prepared for the European Commission showed that alcohol was in Ireland is 50% more affordable that it was 15 years ago.

Young people’s age of first drinking has dropped from 14 to 16 in the space of a decade. A woman can reach her low risk weekly drinking limit for less than €7 and a man can do it for less than €10 – that’s an average worked one hour on minimum wage.

The bottom line is we have alcohol for sale at pocket money prices – you can walk into a supermarket and find alcohol for less than the price of a bottle of water or chocolate in that same shop. We have a perfect storm of widespread availability of very cheap alcohol and as young people themselves tell us they have no problem accessing alcohol. The average pocket money is €16 and we know that even half of that amount is enough to get a young person drunk.

I would like to finish up with a statement from John Higgins, father of David Higgins, the 19-year-old young Mayo man who took his own life. We asked Mr Higgins if there was anything he would like to say to this committee. These are his words:

“Many factors played a part in David’s death but cheap alcohol played a very large part. Alcohol can now be purchased for pocket money prices. For years we have heard our politicians promise to ban cheap alcohol but it is still on the shelves. The availability of cheap alcohol encourages house parties where there is an abundance of drink. It presents a danger for young people where alcohol can be consumed at abnormally high levels without anyone there to say ‘you’ve had enough’. That combination is a source of continuous worry for every conscientious parent of a teenager. We always were vigilant. You can’t stand beside your children – you want to give them the freedom but what do you do with this?

“Alcohol is being sold at pocket money prices. Somebody can go to a supermarket or shop and can buy an amazing amount of drink for not much at all. How many reports are there going to have to be? Alcohol is just so cheap. All I’m looking for is a little bit of honesty, to bring the price of alcohol up so that young people think twice about buying it in the quantities they’re buying it. These people who are selling alcohol at this price – do they not realise what it is they are responsible for? Take the cheap drink off the shelves.

“You cannot accept the revenue generated by alcohol with open arms and not accept responsibility of the heartbreak associated with the cheap alcohol. The Government owes it to its citizens to protect them from this plague. We don’t have living proof – our proof is dead.”

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