Experts on alcohol consumption have accused the government of giving in to ‘corporate bullying’ by the alcohol industry. Speaking last week during Mayo Drug and Alcohol Awareness Week, Professor Joe Barry and Dr Ann Hope argued that the government has allowed the industry to self regulate and has failed to curb alcohol advertising.
The two experts, both of Trinity College, spoke at ‘Sláinte’, a seminar that explored the relationship between Irish culture and alcohol. During the seminar, which was held in Hotel Ballina, they both spoke of alcohol lobby groups’ power to shape policy on the issue.
A former National Alcohol Policy Advisor, Dr Ann Hope helped produce a 1996 report that predicted that alcohol consumption was set to increase in the Irish population over the next ten years, in line with projected economic growth.
She told the seminar that instead of implementing policy to counteract this projected increase in alcohol consumption, various governments ignored it. Worse, responding to increased lobbying from the alcohol industry, policy increased the availability of alcohol and led to increased consumption.
“During the Celtic Tiger we had more disposable income and had a hell of a party, and now we are paying the price. That is happening now around alcohol,” she said. “In 1995 when we were drafting the alcohol policy it was very clear that if income increased, consumption would increase. We put it into the report, we asked the politicians to introduce policies, but the industry lobby was too powerful, that was the reality. You have no idea how powerful that lobby is,” she said.
Dr Hope went on to explain that in 2003, legislation was drafted to restrict alcohol marketing to protect children. In response, she said, ‘the drinks industry brought all the heavy hitters from America and around the world to Bertie Ahern’s desk. They argued they would self regulate if the legislation was not enacted. That legislation was passed by cabinet twice, but it never saw the light of the Dáil or the Seanad. That is how powerful they are’.
Public health sacrificed
In his address Prof Barry described golfer Darren Clarke’s drink-fuelled celebrations after winning the British Open as ‘depressing’. He also said US President Barack Obama’s choreographed visit to a pub was a ‘disgrace’ that highlighted the stereotype of Irish people around the world.
Prof Barry called for a total ban on alcohol advertising, especially in sport, arguing that rugby has ‘sold its soul’ with the amount of alcohol-related sponsorships it accepted.
He went on to criticise the decision to appoint alcohol-industry representatives to the Strategic Task Force on Alcohol, comparing it to a drug dealer sitting on a drugs task force. He argued that just like the banks, the alcohol industry does not want to be regulated. Referring to the Drink Aware campaign and to MEAS (‘Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society’), he said they were ‘clever’ initiatives set up by the industry. MEAS could just as easily stand for ‘Minimising Effective Action by the State’, he quipped.
“The industry has shown that it can’t really regulate itself … At the moment there are codes drawn up by the industry that are not effective in getting people to reduce their drinking. The task force recommends a reduction in overall consumption … one way to lessen demand is less advertising.
“The manufacturers are very powerful, and in the past seem to have had the ear of the government. What we are trying to do from a public health point of view is against the commercial interests of the industry,” he said, adding “The government has a choice – to work for the common good or to let the industry do what it wants.”