“Is there a sadder sight in sport than that of tiny kids transformed into walking beer ads by their replica kit?” asks Tom McGurk

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TOM McGurk, the respected Irish journalist, radio presenter and sports broadcaster, will speak at Alcohol Action Ireland’s conference on Thursday, November 1.
Mr McGurk, well-known as the host of RTE’ television’s rugby coverage, will speak on the issue of alcohol sponsorship of sports.
Earlier this year, in the following piece in the Sunday BUsiness Post, described alcohol sponsorship of sports as “the very front line of the battle between consumerism and the wider good of society”.

IT SEEMS that, at long last, Ireland’s alcohol epidemic is coming under official scrutiny. Last week, it was officially recognised in a parliamentary report that we Irish drink in a more dangerous way than the people of almost any other country. The government’s steering group on national substance misuse strategy report, published last Tuesday, revealed that the average Irish adult drank 11.9 litres of pure alcohol in 2010, corresponding to 482 pints of lager, 125 bottles of wine or 45 bottles of vodka a year.

It calculated that, since 19 per cent of the adult population abstained, the actual quantity of alcohol consumed per drinker was considerably more.

While alcohol consumption has reduced since 2000, adults in 2010 were still drinking more than twice the average amount of alcohol consumed per adult in 1960. Ireland’s per capita alcohol consumption is 11.3 litres per adult – the tenth-highest of 40 countries in 2009. Furthermore, one-quarter of Irish adults report that they binge-drink every week.

Significantly, as the report essentially surveyed adult drinking, given the huge number of younger drinkers we have, the real figures are probably more alarming. In short, over half of Irish drinkers have been identified as having a harmful drinking pattern. That’s nearly 1.5 million adults drinking in a pattern dangerous to their physical and psychological health.

The report also says Irish children are drinking younger and drinking more than ever before. Astonishingly, over half of Irish 16 year-old children have been drunk, and one in five is a weekly drinker.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who out on the streets at weekends. As a GP friend in a small provincial town put it to me recently: “It’s incredible, when you think of it, that, in almost every town in Ireland from Thursday night until Monday morning, the hospitals, the GPs, the ambulances, police and fire brigades – all the emergency services of the state – are almost entirely devoted to dealing with the problem of alcohol.”

He added: “Ask any GP now what is the greatest problem in his surgery any day of the week, and he will tell you alcohol or alcohol-related problems like physical illness, domestic violence, depression or suicide. Then, after the surgeries, try visiting our courts.”

The report suggested a variety of ways to deal with this national crisis, from pricing to controlling points of sale and marketing.

Whereas increasing minimum pricing and decreasing outlets is relatively simple to achieve (off-licences have increased by 161 per cent since 1998), dealing with Ireland’s vast alcohol marketing and sponsorship strategies are, in my opinion, the most important challenge.

Drink companies spend millions situating our most pernicious legal drug at the very centre of our lives, thereby effectively disguising its dangers. We have come a long way from messages such as “Guinness is good for you”.

Modern marketing is about cultural conditioning and employs physiological and subliminal weaponry along with the traditional tools of clever copywriting and creative campaigning. Essentially, we are dealing with levels of consumer propaganda and brainwashing that have become more and more ingenious, if not sinister.

Here we have the marketing of a dangerous drug, the major factor in creating a public health crisis far beyond anything our illegal drug problem has created.

Heroin and cocaine abuse do not (to quote the report) fill 2,000 hospital beds every weekend and cost the health services  €3.7 billion a year – the price of alcohol-related harm. Like the historic moment when tobacco marketing was banned, as a society we have now reached the same Rubicon with alcohol.

Back then, two defining and decisive actions delivered serious blows to the pernicious culture of tobacco: the banning of advertising and the introduction of the smoke-free workplace. Now alcohol must be treated in a similar fashion.

The frontline in this battle is sports sponsorship. This is alcohol marketing’s prize achievement: by brilliantly utilising product association, it has inveigled itself into places of recreation and entertainment. This is the very front line of the battle between consumerism and the wider good of society. Sport, with its vast following of men and women of all classes and ages, with its depth of loyalties and passions and above all with its direct links to television and (increasingly) social media is central to alcohol marketing.

Given that alcohol branding is everywhere – on the jerseys, in the sports grounds and stadiums, across the programmes, even on the ball and the pitch, there are times one wonders whether we are playing sport or just flogging drink.

From the marketing point of view, sport is to males what cosmetics are to females. As Rupert Murdoch famously discovered years ago in Australia, men tolerate advertising only in the context of sport.

It is not time to ask the following questions?

Given the huge upsurge in young teenager drinking, is it acceptable to allow sport/alcohol marketing to generate a climate of alcohol toleration and familiarisation in young people?

Is there a sadder sight in sport than that of tiny kids transformed into walking beer ads by their replica kit?

When they see older kids on the Saturday night streets with their clinking cargoes of booze in plastic bags, do those alcohol marketers have any crisis of conscience?

The measure of their success is that, in the last decade, alcohol and sport in Ireland have become almost symbiotic.

It’s been a brilliant marketing strategy – to such an extent that it now effectively controls the environment, and shapes the context and subtext of our national pastimes. Long ago, it reached a point of critical mass, and now dominates popular consumer culture. The public health implications could hardly be more significant.

Sport, with its cast of heroes, its family and local loyalties, and its deep traditions and passions has provided alcohol marketing with a goldmine of opportunities. This great love affair between people and sport has been ruthlessly hijacked by the alcohol industry. What should be about physical health and community values has been drowned in the tsunami of our most dangerous drug.

The arrogance of the drinks manufacturers and marketers is astonishing. Leaping the boundaries between editorial and advertising, they are now even producing sports programmes themselves for television and the internet. Players are being paid to personally advertise and even be interviewed wearing their “beer gear”.

Any campaign to address this public health crisis, which tries to co-exist beside the massive alcohol marketing and sponsorship campaign around sport, will be doomed to failure, because it will be trying to ignore the huge elephant in the room.

When millions are being spent to tell the public that alcohol is as essential to our emotional lives as contests with ball or ball and stick, who will listen?

Let’s turn off their propaganda, find sponsorship that comes with less of a price and, then, for the great battle ahead, at least we’ll all be on an even pitch.