Sponsorship ban to become a reality

The Last Word   by Philip O’Regan in The Southern Star

I’VE been having conflicting views on the whole debate about the Department of Health proposal to ban alcohol companies’ sponsorship of sports events.

I can see some very good and very valid points on both sides of the argument, but overall I think I’m leaning towards those who are calling for the ban.

But the proposal to phase out drinks companies’ sponsorship of big sporting events needs to be done over a period of a number of years and it can’t be a sudden guillotine action.

The banning of sports sponsorship by alcohol companies is just one of a number of proposals that is being considered by the government. The proposals are drawn from the report of the National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group which was published last year. This group was set up in 2009 and had for the first time included alcohol in its considerations.

Various figures are floating around but the general consensus is that Irish sport receives somewhere between €25m and €30m from alcohol sponsorship. This is not just the money that the IRFU receives from Heineken, or the FAI from Carlsberg, but it is also the small sports clubs in the towns and villages all over the country getting small amounts of money from a local publican who will sponsor a set of jerseys or tracksuits, etc.

With many sporting bodies finding it very difficult to attract sponsorship of any kind right now, to cut off €25 million or so would definitely leave a gaping hole in the funding of sport in this country for many years.

Be that as it may, we also have to face up to the fact that Ireland is, in many respects, a national basket case when it comes to alcohol.

In the World Health Organisation (WHO) league, the Republic of Ireland is at number three in the alcohol consumption table.

There’s no getting away from the fact that alcohol has a devastating effect on many individuals and families in this country and the cost in human and economic terms and the social consequences of alcohol abuse is completely aberrant and most definitely unsustainable.

What is most interesting in this latest debate about the misuse of alcohol is that it is being driven by public health specialists and doctors, and not the government at all. Indeed, for the past 25 years or so successive Irish governments have made notional efforts in relation to tackling our dysfunctional relationship with alcohol, and on each occasion have buckled under the weight of the very powerful drinks industry, vintners or related lobby groups.

The debate has now evolved to the same point that the debate on tobacco control was at some 30 years or so ago. And I believe that the momentum behind introducing measures such as curbing sports sponsorship by drinks companies, introducing minimum pricing, and other measures to counter the shocking level of harm caused by alcohol in this country is now moving inexorably on. It is not now a case of if these measures will be introduced, but when.

Conor Cullen of Alcohol Action Ireland said recently: ’We need to break the close links that exist between some of our healthiest activities and these unhealthy products that take such a toll on our society.’

Another leading public health specialist last year made a pre-budget call for a national strategy to control sales of alcohol at discount in supermarkets and off-licences.

Dr Declan Bedford says that failure of successive governments to develop a national alcohol policy has had a ’devastating’ impact on Irish society and family life. He noted that alcohol related harm costs €3.7 billion a year, or 85 cent for every unit consumed.

Dr Bedford also pointed out that Irish people are now the biggest binge-drinkers in Europe and that every seven hours someone dies from an alcohol-related disease.

This ban on alcohol companies’ sponsorship of sports events will definitely be introduced. But it needs to be done sensibly and on a phased basis.

When the leaders of the three major sporting organisations in Ireland – the FAI, the IRFU and the GAA – came together to protect the status quo before the all-party Committee on Transport and Communications in March, they argued that there was no evidence to prove any link between sponsorship of sporting events by alcohol companies and the misuse of alcohol.

But surely drinks companies, who have very sophisticated marketing machines (and big budgets) at their disposal, are not putting huge amounts of money into sponsorship of sporting events for any other reason than to promote their products.

The GAA it seems has already seen the penny drop with regard to sponsorship by drinks companies and have reduced their reliance on such sponsorships in recent years.

Sports Minister Leo Varadkar recently called for a delay on any proposed ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport until at least 2024 to avoid interfering with the IRFU bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023. A ban on sponsorship by drinks companies would serious threaten the World Cup bid, he maintained.

I’m not sure if the ban can be delayed until 2024; phasing in a ban that would come fully into effect in 2020 is a more realistic scenario.

Sporting organisations need to be given a realistic period to try and source some other revenue streams to replace the money they have been getting through sponsorship by drinks companies. It will be very difficult. But the ban is coming and sporting organisations need to face that reality.