Why is it important to bring alcohol sponsorship of sports to an end?

The Steering Group Report on the National Substance Misuse Strategy contains 45 recommendations to reduce alcohol-related harm in Ireland, but if you are not familiar with the process then recently you’d be forgiven for thinking it only contained one.

Recent media coverage of the measures proposed by Minister Alex White for inclusion in the Public (Health) Alcohol Bill has focused almost exclusively on one issue – alcohol sponsorship of sports. You may have heard passing mention of measures relating to pricing and availability or some of the many other recommendations, but certainly not much.

It’s easy to see why the proposal to phase out alcohol sponsorship of sports by 2020 generates easy headlines. You have the biggest sporting organisations in the country involved; you have the alcohol industry and its considerable financial clout lobbying against it and then there’s the strong political element to it, with the Cabinet seemingly split on the proposal.

The extensive coverage also shows how strongly Irish people feel about sporting matters, but then if we didn’t feel that way, and have such a high level of interest in sports, the alcohol companies wouldn’t be pumping so much money into these sponsorship deals and fighting so hard to retain their close links to our sporting organisations.

However, the debate is currently being framed in a way that suggests that those in favour of the proposed ban, including Alcohol Action Ireland, see it, and it alone, as the answer to alcohol-related harm in Ireland. We don’t.

We see it as part of a multi-faceted plan (remember, there are 44 other recommendations) to tackle a complex problem, which will hopefully result in Irish people drinking less – a result which would see the massive burden of alcohol-related harm on the people on this country lessened considerably. The proposals, all of them together, are effectively a blueprint to change our harmful relationship with alcohol.

However, getting somewhat lost amid the current debate about alcohol sponsorship of sports is this key question: Why is bringing alcohol sponsorship of sports to an end important?

We know that measures such as minimum pricing and the structural separation of alcohol in retail premises will have a positive impact on public health by helping to reduce alcohol consumption, but as well as looking at the supply of alcohol, it’s also essential that we tackle the demand for it by effectively regulating, through legislation, alcohol marketing, including advertising and sponsorship.

Minister White’s proposal to phase out alcohol sponsorship of sports is an opportunity to finally bring an end to the deeply worrying situation where our sporting organisations are being used as a vehicle by the alcohol industry to promote its products, particularly to the young people who are most at risk from them.

We need to break the close links that exist between some of our healthiest activities and these unhealthy products that take such a toll on our society.   It’s in the interest of the public health and, in particular, our young people, who need to be protected from these powerful and sophisticated influences on their drinking behaviour and expectations.

Young people’s drinking patterns have a direct effect on their health, development and welfare both in the short and long term and to say that children and young people are not influenced by alcohol sponsorship of sports is equivalent to saying that they only begin to see and hear on their 18th birthday.

There is a significant evidence base which clearly shows that marketing, including advertising, sponsorship and other forms of promotion, increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol, and to drink more if they are already using alcohol. This has been confirmed by several significant studies, including one systematic review that included over 38,000 young Europeans. You can find  [wpfilebase tag=fileurl id=139 linktext=’that study’ /] and many others in our Reports section.

Alcohol costs the State over €3 billion every year, while the human and social costs are also huge, with three people dying from an alcohol-related illness every day in Ireland and a rapidly increasing number of young people being treated for alcohol-related health problems, as was pointed out by Liver Specialist Dr Stephen Stewart just last weekend.

The proposals put forward by the Department of Health offer our Government the opportunity to save a lot of lives and a lot of money, while they also have the potential to significantly improve the health and well-being of future generations of Irish people – that’s why implementing a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports is important. And it’s why all the other proposed measures are important too.