Coalition still running shy of tackling alcohol abuse

OPINION:  When it comes to laws curbing drink-related problems, the Coalition like earlier governments frets about upsetting the drinks industry, writes BRIAN O’CONNELL  

SINCE THE early noughties, successive Irish governments have made noises in relation to tackling our ongoing and dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. And each occasion government has bottled it at the behest of the drinks industry, vintners or related lobby groups.

Those who have contributed to the debate on our engagement with alcohol did feel a sense of hope and optimism with the manner in which Minister of State at the Department of Health Róisín Shortall took to her brief, pushing the idea of banning below-cost selling of alcohol as well as highlighting lax parental attitudes to underage drinking in the home.

Shortall, in an interview in this newspaper in January, said: “We have an unhealthy relationship with drink and it is clearly a cultural issue.”

For me, that sense of hope and optimism turned to exasperation last week when Tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, launched a Euro 2012 Survival Guide which was developed by the drinks industry, through the organisation Meas (Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society) and

Meas was established and funded by the drinks industry in 2002, at a time when there was a large spike in binge drinking, and it has developed the drinkaware.iewebsite and campaigns.

The launch was also attended by Football Association of Ireland chief executive John Delaney as well as Fionnuala Sheehan, chief executive of Meas. Presumably, the Tánaiste felt it was appropriate to attend as the guide was developed in collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

A press release on the survival guide and the launch remains on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website. I’ll return to the contents of the survival guide in a moment.

Earlier this year, the National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group issued a detailed report intended to inform public health policy with regards to alcohol in this country.

The group was set up in 2009 and had for the first time included alcohol in its considerations. Its members were drawn from representatives of the drinks industry, Garda, health services, public sector, youth organisations and alcohol campaigners.

Meas withdrew from the final recommendations of the group and issued its own minority report, claiming that some members of the steering group were “ideologically prejudiced against Meas” and were “unwilling to acknowledge the contribution of Meas to tackling alcohol abuse”.

Meas had problems with much of the final report, including minimum pricing and a proposed social responsibility levy on the drinks industry. The steering group had called for a levy on alcohol, legislation separating sale and promotion of alcohol from food products, the ending of alcohol sponsorship in sporting and cultural events from 2016 and an increase in the price of alcohol in the medium term.

What happens the recommendations of the steering group is now unclear and at least one member of the group, alcohol addiction councillor Rolande Anderson, has concerns: “Every time with this issue, we hear the same thing of let’s set up a strategy. And then we don’t implement it. The reason is because we have very few conviction politicians. For whatever reason, they are worried about upsetting the drinks industry.”

While consumption of alcohol in Ireland has declined since record levels at the turn of the noughties, adults in 2010 were still drinking more than twice the average amount of alcohol consumed in 1960. We also binge drink more than most other European Union countries. And somewhere in the region of 2,000 hospital beds are occupied in Ireland every night due to alcohol-related factors.

Bearing all this in mind, let’s return to the Euro 2012 survival guide (why is travelling abroad something that has to be survived and not experienced?) and the particular content in relation to alcohol and sex.

The guide suggests that travellers should avoid “any appearance of being drunk” and warns that too many in-flight drinks can lead to a “killer hangover”.

In a section on food and alcohol, we are told “eating is not cheating”. Nowhere in the guide does it say to drink in moderation, or even define what binge drinking is or the harmful side effects in relation to liver disease, cancer, mental health or a host of other conditions.

In fact, Meas and drinkaware.iehave difficulties with the Health Service Executive position on binge drinking (six or more standard drinks in one sitting) and also disagree with the Government’s position on reducing weekly alcohol consumption levels in this country.

At a time when the Government is supposed to be considering implementing the recommendations of the expert steering group, why did the Tánaiste decide to launch a survival guide so closely associated with the drinks industry?

Surely, if Irish fans are in need of advice, either in relation to public health matters, or travel overseas, then this information should be issued by the Department of Health and Children, the HSE or solely by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

It beggars belief that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade could support and promote a guide which contains the following advice: “Hooking up abroad is one of travel’s greatest pleasures, not to mention one of the main reasons we go anywhere . . . ”

As a married man, I happen to enjoy the way travel broadens my cultural horizons and I would expect I’m not alone in that regard.

I believe the Tánaiste’s presence at the press launch sends out the wrong message to his cabinet colleagues, and to Ms Shortall, who may have to make some difficult policy decisions regarding alcohol in the coming months.

The sad fact is I don’t think this Coalition has the resolve to tackle this issue. And like practically every other government we have had in recent years, they will most likely continue to kick the can, pint, bottle and keg etc down the road.

Brian O’Connell is a journalist and broadcaster. His book, Wasted: A Sober Journey Through Drunken Ireland, is published by GillMacmillan. Twitter: @oconnellbrian