Statement to the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications by Dr William Flannery

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I am Dr William Flannery and I am the Chair of the Faculty of Addiction Psychiatry of the College of Psychiatry of Ireland.

The College has repeatedly called for the implementation of evidence based measures to reduce alcohol related harm. Such measures include pricing, reducing availability and banning the promotion of alcohol.

In 2008 this College issued a Policy Paper calling for a ban on all alcohol advertising and sponsorship in Ireland. The Paper stated that it is the opinion of the College, particularly given the evidence of adolescent alcohol related harm, that all promotion of alcohol products should be banned. Since then, there has been additional national and international research outlining the extent of alcohol advertising targeted at adolescents.

Internationally the British Medical Association, which advocates for the health of the public, has examined the ’Damaging effect of alcohol marketing on young people’. They concluded that alcohol marketing communications have a powerful effect on young people and are independently linked with the onset, amount and continuation of their drinking.

Through the use of TV, social networking, sponsorship of music and sporting events they reinforce and exaggerate strong pro alcohol social norms. Among a number of recommendations to the UK government their first recommendation is to ban all alcohol marketing communications.

The scientific opinion of the ’Science Group of European Alcohol and Health Forum’ found consistent evidence to demonstrate an impact of alcohol advertising on the uptake of drinking among non-drinking young people and increased consumption among existing drinkers. A survey in New Zealand found that sports people receiving direct alcohol industry sponsorship reported more hazardous drinking than those not receiving sponsorship. Finally, the WHO has stressed the critical importance of delaying the onset of drinking in young people.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds in Ireland and Ireland has the 4th highest rate of youth suicide in the EU. Research from the National Suicide Research Foundation in 2010 found that alcohol was involved in 24% of all cases of deliberate self harm that is attempted suicide, which rose to 44% for male cases. The association between alcohol and attempted suicide appears self evident given the timing of peak presentation to Emergency Departments around midnight on Sundays, Mondays and increasingly on or after public holidays.

More research from the National Suicide Research Foundation shows that suicides among men rose sharply as the economy went into recession with higher rates for those in the construction industry and having a harmful drinking pattern.

Given these facts, it is hard not be disappointed at Drinks Industry behaviour towards the National Substance Misuse Steering Group. The aim of the group was to develop an alcohol strategy to run alongside the National Drug Strategy. The College, the Drinks Industry and representatives from other areas of health, community and government were there. The College believed that all present were acting in good faith and over two and a half years worked to reach a consensus. The group issued their report just over a year ago. Despite being in the group, the Drinks Industry chose to stand aside and issue a minority report.

At a personal level, I have been working in psychiatry now for 15 years. One of my first training positions was in child psychiatry where every morning the patients greeted me with “whassup”. This was a slogan for Budweiser at the time. These patients were children, the majority under the age of 12. It is these children, who picked up on this ad, who are now adults and making headlines about being drunk in Australia.

I now run an addiction service in the midlands and most of patients are dependent on alcohol, that is alcoholics. As anyone who knows an alcoholic will know, denial is a strong feature of the illness. They are convinced they need alcohol to be normal, to be happy, to function. I hear the same language from those who have alcohol sponsors. Without alcohol our sports, music or culture events will not happen. We need alcohol sponsorship to have major tournaments, to run our organisation, alcohol is our culture. Denial is very powerful.

Sadly with some of my patients, my advice, that of their family, friends and work colleagues is ignored and they continue drinking to their death. Since 1990 there have been 11 committees and 15 reports giving advice on how to tackle alcohol related harm. Just as “drink responsibly” for an alcoholic does not work, I ask you to say stop to the Drinks Industry and call for a ban on all alcohol advertising and sponsorship in Ireland.