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Taking back alcohol education

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

As we embark into a month of good intentions and probably Dry January for a few of us, it was interesting over Christmas to see Minister for Health Simon Harris contact Irish media outlets to request that they use the HSE information resource askaboutalcohol.ie rather than industry-funded drinkaware.ie when giving public information about alcohol.
In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor intervention, with much more action needed to combat addiction and support addicts. However, it highlighted the uncomfortable relationship that exists between the Department and the alcohol industry, and our own relationship with alcohol in Ireland.
It’s incredible that for so long, we have been absolutely fine with allowing an organisation funded by the alcohol industry to ‘educate’ us on how to drink safely, and that they have somehow become the go-to source of information, despite their obvious vested interest. Not only that, but they have also been afforded charitable status.
Are we really so in thrall to alcohol that we would sooner take advice from the industry than from the health service? Imagine allowing the tobacco industry media space to claim to educate people, including youngsters, about responsible smoking? It’s unthinkable, but while the harmful effects of cigarettes are well documented, it’s important to remember that alcohol also causes deaths, and alcohol-related illness costs the taxpayer a considerable sum every year.
The citing of Drinkaware information and research in the media is prolific. In recent articles about underage drinking after the Junior Certificate results, it was not the HSE that was giving advice on how to talk to teenagers about drinking, but Drinkaware. Similarly, just prior to Christmas, a national media outlet ran an article in which Drinkaware reminded parents and other adults to be positive role models for young people in relation to alcohol.
If you pay attention to these PR pieces, there is a consistent theme throughout that proves Drinkaware’s vested interest. In its messaging, it always focuses firmly on individual responsibility and behaviour, but never acknowledges the contribution of the industry to alcohol harm.
This focus on individual responsibility quite wilfully ignores the industry’s role and dismisses the more complicated dynamics that exist around alcohol addiction, stigmatising addicts in doing so.
Research on industry-led messaging about alcohol use/misuse has shown that ‘responsible drinking’ is a vague and ambiguous term, used almost exclusively by industry-affiliated bodies. It’s also pertinent to remember that when Drinkaware encourages people to ‘drink responsibly’, it is still literally encouraging them to drink.
The power of the alcohol industry is widespread. Recently, the Tomar Trust, a philanthropic foundation, was recently blocked by a media agency – no doubt one with a drinks company as a major client – from running a high-impact billboard campaign on the dangers of underage drinking, on the grounds that it was ‘too political’.
PR and media agencies were not absent from discussions around the long-delayed Public Health Alcohol Bill either. Funnily, Drinkaware, the organisation that claims to educate the public on alcohol use and misuse, was notably lacking when it came to making contributions, particularly on the health value of minimum pricing.
The Union of Students in Ireland was ahead of the curve. As far back in 2013 it cut ties with Drinkaware, citing concerns around its ties to the industry, the damaging ‘drink responsibly’  message, as well as its silence around the now abandoned Arthur’s Day concept – a one-day Guinness-promoting festival. In the past, the Road Safety Authority and An Garda Síochána partnered on campaigns; however, this does not appear to have happened in a while.
The CEO of Drinkaware, Sheena Horgan – who, interestingly calls herself an ‘ethical marketer’ – is at pains to point out the impact that the organisation is having on a ‘new national conversation’, citing a significant increase in visits to the Drinkaware website and usage of its drinks calculator.
If what was needed was a shiny online tool, then surely the place for that would be on the independent HSE website, a (badly needed) upgrade of which could be funded by a corporate social responsibility levy on the industry. But then, there’d be no propaganda or encouraging people to drink. Beware lions in sheep’s clothing.
Simon Harris has struck a small blow; let’s hope it’s now followed by meaningful action.