The drinks industry will not do the right thing

From The Irish Times

SECOND OPINION:  A responsibility levy will work and must be supported, writes JACKY JONES  

THE NEW measures to reduce alcohol related harm proposed by Minister Róisín Shortall deserve support from all sectors of society. She wants to restrict drink advertising, phase out the sponsorship of sporting and cultural events by 2016, introduce minimum pricing, and impose a responsibility levy which will be used to change Ireland ’s unhealthy drinking culture. International evidence shows that these measures are among the most cost-effective interventions to reduce harmful alcohol consumption.

Powerful groups, such as the drinks industry, have already started lobbying to ensure these measures are not implemented. Applying intense pressure to preserve the status quo is nothing new.

The Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI) and Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society (MEAS) responded to the Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy 2012 by producing their own minority reports. These organisations were members of the steering group but could not agree with many of its recommendations.

The minority reports object to any new legislative measures that might reduce alcohol consumption and both MEAS and ABFI want a strategy which emphasises information and public awareness campaigns. MEAS has spent  €20m in the past five years informing people about the alcohol content of a standard drink and safe weekly limits. These social marketing approaches do not work and the drinks industry want more of them for that very reason. Nearly 50 years of research shows that information does not change health behaviour.

The drinks industry ignores the evidence because it has no real interest in changing Ireland ’s harmful drinking culture.

The findings of the July 2012 report Alcohol: Public Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviours from the Health Research Board (HRB) could be used by ABFI and MEAS to scupper attempts by government to reduce alcohol consumption. The study of 1,020 adults, found that less than 10 per cent of respondents know the number of standard drinks in one 200ml glass of wine, a half pint of Guinness or lager, or a single measure of spirits. Less than 10 per cent know the pre-2010 recommended maximum number of drinks that men and women can safely consume in any one week. These findings seem to point to a worrying level of ignorance about safe drinking levels.

Unfortunately, the HRB does not discuss or interpret these results and makes no recommendations for action.

Different sectors of society will interpret the findings in whatever way suits their own agenda. One interpretation is to assume Irish people are poorly educated about alcohol and all that is needed is more media campaigns on safe drinking levels. Although this simplistic analysis would suit the drinks industry, it is also completely wrong. Knowing the numbers of standard drinks that can be safely consumed in any one week is totally irrelevant, does not affect drinking behaviour, or influence how many drinks a person chooses to consume. Alcohol education should be designed to mobilise public opinion and support for effective policies, just as was done when smoking was banned in all public places.

The proposed new regulatory measures will affect drinking behaviour and the responsibility levy will also be effective, provided it is spent on evidence-based education programmes and not media campaigns about the risks of alcohol misuse.

Many people support what Minister Shortall wants to do. The HRB report shows that 78 per cent of respondents think the government has a responsibility to implement public health measures that will address high alcohol consumption.

Minimum pricing is supported by six out of 10 people and 76 per cent support a ban on advertising alcohol products before 9pm. The ABFI or MEAS must not be allowed to dilute or minimise the impact of any government proposal that will change Irelands unhealthy drinking culture. Alcohol misuse should be treated in the same way as smoking.

Tobacco manufacturers were given no say in Ireland ’s tobacco legislation and the drinks industry should be given no say in alcohol legislation.

It is as simple as that.

Jacky Jones is a former regional manager of health promotion with the HSE