Dr Bobby Smyth, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Board Member of Alcohol Action Ireland:
We have a major alcohol problem in Ireland. It kills 1,200 people per year. There are 2,000 Irish people in hospital beds today due to alcohol use. The harms generated by alcohol are felt not just by the drinker, but by those around them also. 10% of Irish children say their lives have been adversely affected by their parents drinking. More starkly, it is estimated that parental drinking accounts for one sixth of all cases of child abuse and neglect. How strange these innocent victims of our drinking culture must find it looking out into an Ireland that chooses to bombard them with positive images of alcohol, linking it to fun, social and sporting prowess.
Alcohol Action Ireland was one of a vast number of stakeholders on the National Substance Misuse Strategy steering group. As you do, that group recognised that this is a complex health & social problem with many factors influence consumption, and therefore requires a multi-pronged approach. Today we are discussing just one of the dozens of recommendations from that report, in isolation. There is a danger of failing to see the big picture. In addition to making changes to pricing and availability in order to apply a brake on Ireland’s runaway drinking, we must also take our foot off the accelerator, and alcohol promotion, via advertising and sponsorship is that accelerator.
While common sense tells us that sponsorship promotes consumption, with typical arrogance the Alcohol Industry, and those in receipt of its money, demand that we provide them with evidence that it does. It is this multi-billion euro industry that should be required to provide proof. If they have proof that alcohol sponsorship does nothing to increase alcohol related harm, than Alcohol Action Ireland would have no issue with this activity.
Although the recession has caused per capita consumption to fall slightly, Irish adult drinkers still consume the equivalent of one bottle of whiskey on average, for each man and woman, per week, this average being well into the range of hazardous drinking. The My World survey in 2012 demonstrated that the majority (two thirds) of young Irish men use alcohol in a manner that warrants a health intervention based upon WHO criteria, the survey using the AUDIT screening instrument. With 72,000^ babies born each year, our country now functions as a conveyor belt producing very heavy drinkers, each of whom then generates great profits for the alcohol industry.
The sports in receipt of the bulk of drink industry money are rugby, soccer and Gaelic games. These sports are played typically by young men aged 15-29 years. Young men tend to be healthy. The two big things which kill them are suicide and accidents. We all know that alcohol commonly has a role in accidents. We know from Irish research that alcohol is a contributory factor in half of all suicides and that the majority of young men who kill themselves are drunk at the time. Overall, it is estimated that alcohol is responsible for one in every four deaths among young men, the very demographic that plays rugby and soccer. There is no product on the planet that causes more deaths and social problems in young men.
There is no product on the planet that could more inappropriately be promoted by these sporting organisations. Indeed in terms of the harms experienced by the demographic who play these sports it would make more sense to allow them be sponsored by cigarette companies, as tobacco “just” kills people in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
The age of onset of drinking is now typically around 15 years. There are 60,000 children who are going to start drinking this year. 300,000^ Irish children are going to commence their drinking careers in the next five years. Because these children are going to grow up to be among the heaviest drinkers on earth by the time they are 20 years old, it is they who are the real targets of alcohol advertising and sponsorship. From a business perspective it is vital to establish brand awareness, and ideally brand loyalty, prior to commencing drinking.
As was pointed out just last weekend by a former President of the GAA, Dr Michael Loftus – through our ridiculously lax advertising and sponsorship guidelines, we facilitate the drinks industry to groom our children, in the interests of profit, to become the next generation of hard and heavy Irish drinkers.