“There is no product on the planet that is more unsuitable to act as a sponsor of these sports”

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WHEN it comes to the debate surrounding alcohol sponsorship  and sports, the burden of proof should be on the drinks industry argues Dr Bobby Smyth, Child and Adolescent Pyschiatrist with the HSE, and a board member of Alcohol Action Ireland:

DRINKS companies provide sports sponsorship in order to increase consumption of alcohol.

Sponsorship of sporting and cultural activities forms one element of a complex and sophisticated marketing strategy undertaken by drinks companies.

In view of the huge range of factors that influence alcohol consumption at the individual and population level it has proved challenging to conduct research on the specific impact of sponsorship on drinking behaviours.

Nevertheless the World Health Organisation produced a report entitled  “Alcohol and the European Union ” in 2012 and has concluded that marketing strategies, including sports sponsorship, have a real impact on adolescent drinking.

Young people who are more exposed to sports sponsorship by drinks companies and who owned alcohol branded products, such as football jerseys sponsored by alcohol companies, were more likely to commence drinking at an earlier age.

Despite this growing evidence, there are many vested interests who insist that there must be proof that sports sponsorship by alcohol increases alcohol-related harm before they would be willing to support a ban on this activity.

This is a bizarre position to take but it is very typical of the arguments that are made against adopting strategies that would curtail alcohol-related harm.

The demand for evidence should be in the opposite direction. The burden of proof should lie with the drinks industry and with the sporting organisations who accept their sponsorship.

Given the extent of alcohol-related harm in Ireland, the declining age of onset of drinking among adolescents in Ireland and the fact that the majority of young people in Ireland arrive into adulthood with hazardous and unhealthy drinking patterns (My World Survey, 2012), the   burden of proof should be on the drinks industry.

It is the drinks manufacturers who should provide our society with evidence that sports sponsorship does nothing to increase the likelihood of a teenager commencing drinking. If they can provide the parents of Ireland with proof that sports sponsorship does absolutely nothing to increase harmful use of alcohol then alcohol sponsorship of sporting activities could continue. They cannot provide such proof and the evidence points strongly in the opposite direction.

While Minister Shorthall has bravely sought to grasp the nettle of Ireland ’s alcohol problem, and is the first senior politician to do so in a generation, she has faced significant opposition from senior government colleagues including Ministers Varadkar, Coveney and Deenihan.   When recently commenting on his refusal to support a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports, Minister Varadkar argued that a ban should be  “workable, proportionate and evidence based. ”

Well it is certainly workable as evidenced by France which has a ban on sports sponsorship by alcohol companies. Since that sports sponsorship ban was introduced in 1998, France has made it to world cup finals in both rugby and soccer. While sporting organisations in Ireland will undoubtedly be financially inconvenienced by a ban, others will certainly step forward and offer sponsorship.

A drinks company terminated its sponsorship of the Celtic League in rugby last season. The league did not end. A bank has now stepped in as sponsor. A generation ago, tobacco companies were big sponsors of sports in Ireland. Indeed, a tobacco company used to sponsor the GAA All Stars!

While sporting organisation protested at the time regarding the loss of tobacco sponsorship they have gone from strength-to-strength since that time. As stated above, if Minister Varadkar really wants Ireland ’s policies on alcohol to be evidence-based, then he should really provide us with his evidence that alcohol sponsorship of sport is in no way contributing to the substantial alcohol-related harm evident in Ireland.

Finally the Minister wants measures to be  “proportionate ”.   One wonders how bad the alcohol problem needs to get in Ireland for the Minister to think it is worthwhile undertaking this step, which will do no more harm than cause some temporary financial inconvenience to wealthy sporting organisations, some of whom can afford to pay their chief executives double what the Taoiseach earns. Are 1,200 deaths per year linked to alcohol use not enough to prompt some meaningful action? The status quo is not an option.

Alcohol kills the young, while tobacco  “only ” kills the old. As such, the argument for banning alcohol sponsorship of sport is stronger than that for banning tobacco sponsorship. According to the Strategic Task Force on Alcohol report in 2004, alcohol contributed to one in every four deaths in young men in the age range 15-29 years.

This is the very demographic that is most likely to participate in the prominent team sports which are sponsored by the alcohol industry. There is no product on the planet that is more unsuitable to act as a sponsor of these sports.

Again the World Health Organisation has declared that alcohol is the biggest single contributor to preventable death and illness in people under the age of 65 in countries such as Ireland. It is simply wrong that our society permits the sports with the highest youth participation to be used as vehicles for the promotion of alcohol consumption when alcohol is the biggest single threat to the health and well being of the very demographic who participate in these sports.