Alcohol sports sponsors in doctors’ crosshairs

Since 1990 there have been 11 committees and 15 reports giving advice on how to tackle alcohol-related harm, reports Gary Culliton, but to little effect.

From The Irish Medical Times

May 1, 2013

Although the recession has caused per capita consumption of alcohol to fall slightly, Irish adult drinkers still consume, on average, the equivalent of one bottle of whiskey per man and woman per week. This average consumption is well into the range of hazardous drinking, using WHO definitions.

Last year, proposals to curb alcohol misuse were presented by a Department of Health Steering Group, which included the phasing-out of alcohol sponsorship of sporting and cultural events by 2016. Prof Joe Barry and Dr Bobby Smyth of Alcohol Action Ireland and Dr William Flannery and Dr Eamon Keenan of the Faculty of Addiction Psychiatry at the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland recently outlined their positions to the Oireachtas Transport and Communications Committee.

At an earlier meeting, the GAA, FAI and IRFU outlined to the Committee the adverse financial impact of a possible ban on the sponsorship of major sporting events by alcohol companies, for their respective organisations.

With 72,000 babies born each year, it is Alcohol Action Ireland’s view that this country now functions as a “conveyor belt”, producing very heavy drinkers, each of whom generates great profits for the alcohol industry. The sports in receipt of the bulk of drinks industry money are rugby, soccer and Gaelic games. These sports are typically played by young men aged 15-to-29 years.

Prof Barry said it was unacceptable that the major sporting bodies were “dismissing the evidence” and stating that they must continue to get funding through alcohol sponsorship. “Of course we do not want the sporting bodies to struggle. Nobody is saying they should.

“In Australia, it has been proposed that the taxes collected through excise duty on alcohol should be used to fill the gap. We are saying we need to exert some pressure. Alcohol is causing harm; we have big problems. What we are talking about here is sponsorship and high-profile bombardment by the large alcohol companies of the major sporting bodies.”

The two leading causes of death among young men are suicide and accidents, added Dr Smyth. “We all know that alcohol commonly has a role in accidents. We also know from Irish research that it is a contributory factor in half of all suicides and that the majority of young men who kill themselves are drunk at the time,” added the Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist.

Mortality rates

“Overall, it is estimated that alcohol is responsible for one in every four deaths among young males aged 15-to-29 years. There is no product on the planet that causes more deaths and social problems in young men. We believe, therefore, that there is no product on the planet that could more inappropriately be promoted by sports organisations. In terms of the harm experienced by the demographic who play these sports, it would make more sense to allow them to be sponsored by tobacco companies, as cigarettes tend to kill older people.

“The age of onset of drinking is typically around 15 years. During the next 12 months, 60,000 children will start drinking,” continued Dr Smyth. “Therefore, during the next five years, 300,000 Irish children will commence their drinking careers. Because they are going to grow up to be among the heaviest drinkers on earth by the time they are 20 years old, it is they who are the real targets of alcohol advertising and sponsorship. From a business perspective, it is vital to establish brand awareness and, ideally, brand loyalty prior to children commencing drinking. As was pointed out by a former President of the GAA, through our ridiculously lax advertising and sponsorship guidelines, we facilitate the drinks industry to groom children in the interests of profit to become the next generation of hard and heavy Irish drinkers.”

80 proof

In addition to making changes to pricing and availability in order to apply the brake on Ireland’s “runaway drinking culture”, Alcohol Action Ireland urged that we must also take our foot off the accelerator. “Alcohol promotion via advertising and sponsorship acts as that accelerator,” Dr Smyth explained. “While common sense tells us that sponsorship promotes consumption, with typical arrogance, the alcohol industry and those in receipt of its money demand that we provide them with evidence that it does. It is this multi-billion euro industry that should be required to provide proof.”

Alcohol marketing did “influence young people’s alcohol beliefs and behaviour”, Prof Barry stressed. “What one is exposed to as a teenager has long-term effects. A study in Australia and New Zealand showed that sports people exposed to alcohol sports sponsorship had higher drinking scores. In this study, there was a link between sports sponsorship and drinking behaviour.”

Alcohol sponsorship

The College of Psychiatrists of Ireland has issued a policy paper calling for a ban on all alcohol advertising and sponsorship in Ireland. The British Medical Association (BMA) found that alcohol marketing communications had a powerful effect on young people and were independently linked with the onset, amount and continuation of their drinking, said Dr William Flannery, Chair of the College’s Faculty of Addiction Psychiatry. The Science Group of European Alcohol and Health Forum found consistent evidence to demonstrate an impact of alcohol advertising on the uptake of drinking among non-drinking young people and increased consumption among existing drinkers, he added.

Suicide link

Dr Flannery said the association between alcohol and attempted suicide appeared self-evident, given the timing of peak presentation to emergency departments around midnight on Sundays, Mondays and increasingly on or after public holidays. More research from the National Suicide Research Foundation showed suicides among men rose sharply as the economy went into recession, with higher rates for those in the construction industry, with harmful drinking patterns.

The aim of the National Substance Misuse Steering Group ”” involving the College, the drinks industry and representatives from other areas of health, community and Government ”” was to develop an alcohol strategy to run alongside the national drugs strategy. “Despite being in the group, the drinks industry chose to stand aside and issue a minority report,” Dr Flannery said.

The French government became very concerned about alcohol consumption levels in the 1980s, Dr Smyth told the Committee. A complex, multi-pronged strategy was introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which included a ban on sponsorship and severe restrictions on advertising.

Over the following four or five years, per capita consumption decreased by approximately 50 per cent, said Dr Smyth. “The short-term impact of the French prohibition on sports sponsorship, as part of a broader suite of measures ”” akin to those recommended in Ireland’s substance misuse strategy ”” was to reduce consumption and, importantly, to reduce harm,” he said. “We want to see fewer body bags, fewer suicides and fewer people in our emergency departments, psychiatric hospitals and prison cells.”

Longitudinal studies

The reality is that there is clear scientific evidence to link alcohol sponsorship in sports with alcohol use and misuse among young people, said Dr Keenan of the Faculty of Addiction Psychiatry at the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland. “The Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum examined many longitudinal studies,” said Dr Keenan.

“They looked at 13 studies, which involved 38,000 young people between the ages of 10 and 21. Of those 13 studies, nine were from America, one from New Zealand, one from Belgium and one from Germany. Seven of the studies showed that there was clear evidence that the data related to initiation of alcohol use among non-drinkers.

“Three of the studies indicated that the maintenance and frequency of alcohol use among people who were drinking increased and seven of the studies showed that on the overall pattern of people who are not drinking, alcohol sponsorship has an effect on their alcohol use. Only one of the studies indicated that there was no impact; that study was in relation to outdoor advertising near schools. All of the other studies, which included 38,000 people, indicated a clear link between sponsorship, marketing, advertising and the initiation and use of alcohol by young people.”

The lack of legislation governing alcohol advertising and sponsorship was allowing Irish children to be “groomed” by the alcohol industry, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications heard.

Dr Smyth added that even if sponsorship influenced only 2 or 3 per cent of those it reached, 2 per cent of 2,000 deceased people could reduce the death toll by 60 per annum.

Alcohol Action Ireland is calling on the Government to implement the recommendations of the Steering Group Report on the National Substance Misuse Strategy, which would see alcohol sponsorship of sports phased-out and an end to the current system of self-regulation for alcohol marketing.