Letter to The Irish Times from Dr Declan Aherne on alcohol sponsorship of sports

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Dear Editor,

As our legislators sit down to consider the matter of alcohol sponsorship in sport in the coming week, it is perhaps  timely  for us to consider our  approach to alcohol as a society once more.    Alcoholism is systemic in nature, which means that it infiltrates the fabric of social units such as the family.   The two most common and damaging indicators of alcohol problems are the presence of denial and enabling within the system.   We live in an alcoholic society in so far as  these two factors are present in abundance throughout our social networks.   We therefore need to be very careful who we listen to when determining what is a balanced approach to this matter.   ’Enabling’ is defined as ’creating an atmosphere in which the alcoholic can comfortably continue unacceptable behaviour’.   The thought processes of the alcoholic are often deluded into thinking that their behaviour is acceptable.

The alcoholic society may be best described by its general ambivalence toward excess alcohol consumption. Just like the alcoholic individual will deny  that s/he  has a drink problem, so the alcoholic society will demand ’evidence’ that there is a problem with sponsorship by alcohol companies, ignoring the blatant fact that alcohol sponsorship in sport is providing a universal endorsement for alcohol consumption, without the provision in equal measure, for alternative lifestyle choices.   It is this imbalance, driven by marketing and brand exposure, that generates peer pressure to drink.    Those who argue that there is no evidence to link alcohol problems with sports sponsorship are demonstrating a clear ostrich-like approach to the difficulties our society is facing in relation to alcohol.

The treatment of the alcoholic society needs to be no less challenging than the treatment for the individual alcoholic –  including  a reality check, by those who have been affected by the alcoholic’s behaviour. I suggest that all those policymakers currently reflecting on the issue of alcohol sponsorship in sport go and visit any A & E or alcohol treatment centre, go to an AA or Alanon meeting, where you will hear first-hand of the sometimes unbelievable and deluded thinking and perception demonstrated by active alcoholics.  This may help you develop a more sober attitude to and opinion of whether or not we ought to continue with the absurdity whereby we now have major sports trophies named after a beer brand.

The IRFU, GAA and FAI  state  that  as long as we can’t prove a direct connection between alcohol sponsorship and increased alcohol consumption, they will continue using alcohol sponsorship as  a source of revenue. This argument at least confirms that the issue of alcoholism is not something that is their priority. It is, however, the priority of the health professionals as well as the affected families and therefore we might be well advised to listen to their advice rather than the stakeholders who have a vested interest in maintaining sponsorship.  The people who argue in favour of alcohol sponsorship in sport are not health professionals nor  or they  the people who deal with the damage caused by alcohol on a day to day basis. They are in the business of promoting their sport and it is understandable that they would want to protect any resources available to their sport.   Whilst job creation is of paramount importance, in matters of health, jobs must not override our long term health needs. We don’t need revenue from alcohol companies for us to enjoy our sport.

Dr. Declan Aherne

Clinical Psychologist,

University  of  Limerick

and former Munster Rugby player.