The time for action on alcohol harm is now

Mary Brosnan, Director of Midwifery and Nursing at the National Maternity Hospital, Niamh Sheridan and her newborn daughter Megan, and Catherine Keane, Policy and Advocacy Officer with Alcohol Action Ireland, pictured during Alcohol Awareness Week.

ALCOHOL Awareness Week has this week got people thinking and talking about alcohol and how it affects us as individuals, families, communities and a society.

By encouraging people to examine alcohol-related issues and how they impact on all of us, it has stimulated conversations and debate, which can only be helpful as we try to bring about a positive change regarding our harmful relationship with alcohol in Ireland.

One of the key aspects of Alcohol Awareness Week has been to highlight that there is something we can do about this. We can save lives and make Ireland a healthier and safer place in which to grow up and live. We can change things for the better and the time for action is now.

This action must begin with the swift and full implementation of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, currently being drafted by the Department of Health, which contains evidence-based policy measures that target the key areas of alcohol pricing, marketing and availability – measures which international evidence demonstrates will be effective in reducing alcohol-related harm in Ireland.

Today we saw the latest in a series of pieces from the alcohol industry complaining about its perceived exclusion from efforts to reduce alcohol-related harm in Ireland. However, the measures in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill are based on the recommendations contained in the National Substance Misuse Strategy. The alcohol industry was a stakeholder in that process, which continued for some three years before the recommendations were made.

Now, more than two years after those recommendations were eventually published, when we finally have evidence-based measures and the platform to implement them, through the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, to bring about a positive change in our harmful relationship with alcohol, the alcohol industry seeks to restart the entire process again, with itself at the heart of it.

This is because it is seeking to protect its huge profits and to do this it must retain the status quo, one that currently sees three Irish people die from an alcohol-related illness every day, among the wide range of other, serious alcohol-related harms.

This status quo is simply not acceptable to those of us genuinely concerned with the health and wellbeing of the Irish people and, as has been clearly reflected throughout Alcohol Awareness Week, our high levels of alcohol-related harm are also no longer acceptable to the Irish people either.

Nonetheless, at every turn, the alcohol industry seeks to oppose evidence-based measures that would reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland and, therefore, the many related harms.

As Minister Alex White said yesterday, “the conflicting interests of the drinks industry who seek to increase the consumption of alcohol and public health professionals who seek to reduce the consumption of alcohol really cannot be reconciled when it comes to formulating public health policy”.

Minister White also pointed out that “the alcohol industry seeks a role for itself in public health policy areas that extend far beyond their role as producers and retailers of alcohol” and they do this because it would provide an opportunity for them to influence the policy agenda in ways that favour their business interests at the expense of the public health interest.

MEAS, which today complained it is being unfairly excluded, was one of two alcohol industry bodies represented on the Steering Group for the National Substance Misuse Strategy, where they continuously voiced their opposition to its evidence-based recommendations concerning the pricing, marketing and availability of alcohol.

In the Minority Report submitted by MEAS on the National Substance Misuse Strategy, it stated that it does not support “the proposed approach to the regulation of the sale, promotion and marketing of alcohol”.

These measures are opposed by the alcohol industry for the simple reason that to reduce alcohol-related harm in Ireland we have to reduce our overall alcohol consumption, which is clearly not in its interest.

To this end, it continues to ignore the evidence regarding alcohol misuse in Ireland and to lobby vigorously behind-the-scenes against the evidence-based measures, contained in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, proposed to reduce our high levels of alcohol-related harm.

The alcohol industry seeks to retain the existing systems of self-regulation, which have proven to be wholly ineffective with regard to public health, particularly the protection of children and the vulnerable.

The status quo may be very good for alcohol industry profit, but it is clearly very bad for public health. It’s time we started to prioritise the latter. It’s time we took action to reduce alcohol-related harm.