Public Health Alcohol policy must be protected from distortion by vested interests

There is no equivalence between business lobbyists and public health advocates 

 In recent weeks as the battle for the public ‘hearts and minds’ on the need for the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill and its measures has intensified, it is interesting that IBEC – the highly influential business and employer group – sought to spin a common thread between those who lobby to guard invested interests and those who advocate to protect Public Health.

We agree that it is perfectly reasonable for business lobbyists and public health advocates to inform the political system. Indeed, we too value the freedoms that allow business to develop and prosper. However, where we diverge with IBEC and its lobbyists, is that it is not reasonable to assert an equivalence between those who lobby to protect revenue, and those who advocate for measures that will address a persistent, and utterly avoidable, public health crisis.

As the debate deepened, we have witnessed IBEC, and the alcohol Industry surrogates, frequently resort to highly intemperate language to spook our legislators and derail the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. They have gone so far as to say that the measures in the legislation must be ‘condemned’ by business stakeholders. They have warned of ‘devastation’ to our economy. More dangerously, the representatives of the Alcohol Industry have disputed scientific evidence that alcohol is a known carcinogen and the overwhelming global medical consensus that supports the measures of the Bill as effective to reduce alcohol consumption and the related harms. 

This false balance is further reinforced by the pernicious distribution of myths, hyperbole and inaccuracies. While the impassioned pleas seek to do the bidding of global corporations, who fear the contagion of effective public health measures from country to country.

Most concerningly, their calculated intervention encourages a vigilant media, hungry for confrontation, to present a perceived ‘balance’ in its commentary, so placing business and public health interests, as it were, as champions of equal value. However, nothing could be further from reality.

The business intervention that seeks the abandonment or weakening of innovative public health measures may be interesting but they are not the merits of an equal argument. To accept the IBEC position is to believe business has an architectural role in constructing public health policy.

The WHO has stated that “the alcohol industry has no role in the formulation of alcohol policies, which must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests”. This position has been motivated by the inglorious record of global business interests in obstructing public health measures that have ultimately saved thousands of lives. 

In the past, business organisations and their surrogates obstructed every public health measure introduced to combat tobacco including most recently the prolonged effort to introduce plain packaging.

The Public Health Alcohol Bill has a set of reasonable and pragmatic measures that will, over time, reduce our high-risk consumption of alcohol. This is not prohibition or some trial of new economies but modest steps to curb an all-pervasive alcohol fuelled culture that leads to an avoidable crisis of alcohol related harms.

The target of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill when first agreed by government (2013), was to reduce our overall consumption by 22% to 9.1 litres, that is a 3.25% reduction per annum for seven years (2020), which by any standard is an extremely modest objective.

At a time when detractors of scientifically researched initiatives can own ‘alternative’ facts, is the honourable community of Irish business to be so at odds with public good? Are the revenues of the alcohol industry not big enough or must the lives of our citizens come second? 

Business, and all the benefits that flows from its enterprise, make a significant contribution to a progressive society but it is simply not the same, and certainly different to, advancing the health and wellbeing of our nation.