Government unwilling to take on vested interests in drinks industry

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From the Irish Examiner

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

WHEN the dust settled after the festival there had been 90 arrests, including a large number for assault and theft, 308 drug seizures, 28 cases of alleged drug dealing, and multiple teenagers had been stabbed ”” no, not the Swedish House mafia gig, but last year’s Oxegen festival.

The infamous events at the Phoenix Park have cast a welcome spotlight on Ireland’s drinking culture, but the rush to judgment in some quarters ”” with everything from dance music to MCD being blamed for the orgy of violence and drunkenness ”” ignores one salient point: this is nothing new.

The only reason that the public reaction has been so outraged is because the fighting and drinking was shoved in people’s faces when it was transferred from the obscurity of Punchestown to a densely populated area of central Dublin.

“Too many people were there to drink themselves stupid and had no interest in the music”, “security staff were more worried about people getting into the arena with alcohol than the safety of others”, “looting and vandalism was the only way it could be described” are just a flavour of the comments posted on social networking sites about last year’s festival, which received scant media coverage at the time.

Before the “it wouldn’t have happened in my day” brigade begin to feel too smug about their rose-tinted youth, it should be noted that punk gigs in the 1970s were not renowned for their decorousness, while the masses attending Bob Dylan in Slane in the early 1980s were inexplicably inspired to riot by his set of anti-war folk songs.

Regrettably, an acute dose of selective amnesia about these historical events seems to have infected many of the middle-aged commentators now wringing their hands and castigating an entire generation after the, admittedly, deplorable scenes at the Phoenix Park.

With an army of pop-psychologists and armchair sociologists resorting to lazy stereotypes and naked bigotry in their efforts to diagnose what went wrong earlier this month, the unpalatable truth is that this sort of anti-social behaviour is evident in towns and cities all over the country every night of the week ”” you don’t have to buy a ticket for an MCD event in order to witness brawls, under-age drinking and licentiousness.

Usually, however, this sort of bawdy behaviour is confined to dark streets in the early hours of the morning and does not take place in a public park in the middle of the day and in full view of horrified families, many of whom spent the afternoon fleeing hordes of marauding drunks.

So, instead of the usual knee-jerk reactionary bleating about how debauched young people, and their devil music, are all going to hell in a handcart, perhaps it would be more useful to have a wider debate on the only thing we know with any degree of certainty ”” this country has a long-standing, dysfunctional relationship with alcohol which, as well as costing the state an estimated €3.7bn annually, is a contributory factor in 78% of suicides, our other unspoken epidemic.

Pointing out that there is a disproportionate amount of alcohol abuse in this country is a bit like saying that it rains a lot ”” it’s hardly a State secret. Way back in 2004 the second report from the Task Force on Alcohol painted a bleak picture: “Alcohol-related harm happens to those who don’t drink, drink small amounts in a risky situation, those who drink to excess sometimes and those who regularly abuse alcohol.”

That study found problem drinking is not an aberration but the norm among Irish men (out of 100 drinking occasions, 58 ended up binge drinking) and, far from being confined to young drinkers, was a problem in all age groups up to 64 years.

The British Medical Association (BMA), in a comprehensive 2009 report, issued a similar warning.

“It is always tempting to blame the irresponsible few and, in particular, the younger generation who visibly drink to excess. While many young people drink alcohol, and do so irresponsibly, it is not an isolated phenomenon or an exception standing out in an otherwise sober population; it is a social phenomenon driven by values and norms that are prevalent throughout society and underpinned by clever alcohol marketing, in all its forms,” it said.

This contentious issue of alcohol advertising, and sports sponsorship, is one that was highlighted in 2004 when the Taskforce on Alcohol recommended that; “national sporting bodies, with high youth participation, develop a proactive strategy to find an alternative to alcohol sponsorship”.

In the eight years that report has been left gathering dust on a shelf in the Department of Health there has been precisely zero reform when it comes to the marketing of alcohol while the current Minister, Róisín Shortall, can’t even convince her own cabinet colleagues of the merits of removing sporting events from the influence of multinational drinks companies.

This is despite the fact that the State’s chief medical officer, Tony Honohan, publishing yet another report on substance misuse earlier this year, was adamant that: “we need to break that sense of relationship between participation in sport and the access that can sometimes provide for advertising of alcohol and consumption of alcohol, in particular to younger people.”

In fact, Ms Shortall’s much-vaunted plans, to imminently publish definitive proposals to counter alcohol abuse, appear to have now been long-fingered, until at least the end of the year, such is the level of disunity on the issue around the cabinet table.

Lobby groups for the drinks industry vehemently deny any link between alcohol abuse and advertising but, then again, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Meanwhile, a raft of independent research, from reputable sources like the Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum, has consistently found that alcohol marketing increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol and to drink more if they are already using alcohol.

The BMA, in its report on the insidious nature of alcohol marketing, concluded; “strong measures are required at a population level to eliminate the unhealthy cues and prompts that serve to encourage alcohol consumption. By far the most important of these is the marketing and promotion of alcohol.”

Chief among Ms Shortall’s other recommendations are punitive measures, namely reducing the availability of alcohol and increasing its price ”” which rather ignore the inconvenient truth that the sale of alcohol here is already very restrictive and,

according to a survey published last month, is 63% more expensive than the EU average ”” and the usual commitment to resource educational campaigns highlighting the dangers of alcohol.

Ultimately, in a country whose national identity is largely defined by its pub culture and whose unofficial emblem is a pint of stout, the Government can only do so much when it comes to developing effective strategies to combat alcohol abuse.

However, its reluctance to take on powerful vested interests in the drinks industry, despite the overwhelming weight of independent evidence highlighting the malign nature of alcohol marketing, doesn’t instill much confidence in the usefulness of its plans.