Many questions to be asked about meeting with alcohol industry reps and secretary general of the Department of Health 

Did a meeting declared by both Drinks Ireland and Q4PR in the lobbying register take place? If so, we need to know why there is no record of it within the department of health

UPDATE: Since we published this information, a spokesperson for the department of health has clarified that there was an “informal meeting” between Robert Watt and the drinks industry “over a cup of coffee.” There was a record kept of the meeting but no minutes were kept.

Drinks Ireland, a lobby group for the alcohol industry in Ireland sought a meeting with Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Health, citing what they called a ‘lack of engagement’ with the alcohol industry. Why the drinks lobby would think that the department of health should engage with them is one thing, but the bigger question is why the sec gen of the Dept of Health would meet with the drinks lobby. 

This leads to the next question – did this meeting take place? We have exhibit A – the letter asking for the meeting, which is very clear. And we have exhibits B & C, lobbying returns from Drinks Ireland and its PR company Q4PR, both indicating that there was in fact a meeting. Yet an FOI to the Department of Health covering the period of the last quarter of last year and the first quarter of this year yielded no record of any such meeting.  As stated in the update above, the department now says there is a record of an informal meeting between Mr Watt and the drinks industry, but any such record was not released under the FOI covering the period of the meeting (see schedule of records that cover the timeframe of the meeting below). No minutes were kept, a spokesperson said.

Lobbying return from Drinks Ireland re meeting with Robert Watt
Lobbying return from Q4PR re Drinks Ireland meeting with Robert Watt

So, questions to be answered – why does the lobbying return of the drinks industry state there was a meeting with Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Health if there no record of the meeting in the department of health? Why would the secretary general of the Department of Health think it in any way appropriate to meet with an industry that only seeks to stymie, delay and water down public health measures such as the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018? There are other questions, too, concerning the access an industry body can gain, through the use of a top PR company run by a former Senator. 

Did the meeting happen as declared by both Drinks Ireland and Q4PR in the lobbying register? If so, we need to know why there is no record of it within the department of health. If such meetings are to take place, at the very least they require the utmost transparency. It is also of note that Drinks Ireland declared in its lobbying return that the meeting was about food, while Q4PR stated that it was seeking engagement on regulation for the drinks industry, as Drinks Ireland outlined in its letter to the department of health.

 AAI is of the view that the Department of Health is no place for the drinks industry to be disseminating its claims about regulation, many of which are spurious and designed to scare officials into delaying and watering down action.  

We are not the only organisation to have concerns about interactions with the alcohol industry. The HSE has a policy dating back to 2015, on alcohol-related education and communications programmes which formally separates HSE public health advice from partnership with the alcohol industry. The HSE makes clear the level of harm caused by alcohol in Ireland and points to ‘international concerns regarding the involvement of the alcohol industry in research, policy formation, and health promotion campaigns that only serve to distort evidence, distract from effective policy setting, misrepresent the harmful effects of alcohol consumption and indirectly promote alcohol products.’ 

The World Health Organisation in its Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022-2030 recognising the need for protection from commercial interests states ‘..the development of public policies to reduce the harmful use of alcohol should be protected, in accordance with national laws, from commercial and other vested interests that can interfere with and undermine public health objectives.’ 

With such clear advice available and recognising the damage alcohol costs Ireland including 11% of the health care budget, there are questions to be answered by the most senior civil servant in the Department of Health.