ONE of the most worrying issues underlying and undermining Irish society is many of its people’s attitude to and relationship with alcohol, which can be unhealthy to say the least. The issue seems to rear its ugly head coming up to St Patrick’s Day, as people prepare to ‘drown the shamrock’ in honour of Ireland’s patron saint.
It seems to be something that is expected of us and so many are only too willing to live up to the stereotype of the drunken Paddy that is widely perpetuated. Unfortunately, the drinks industry is never shy about jumping on the bandwagon with clever marketing strategies to ensure that their products continue to be widely consumed.
Some of their campaigns have backfired, such as Arthur’s Day, and it looks like the latest from Diageo may also be about to do so. While its Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign seems worthy on the surface, it has met with a lot of opposition from people who have deemed it rather cynical.
Several prominent people have signed an open letter setting out their opposition to this campaign, as they feel the industry is using it as a means of diverting attention away from their ongoing opposition to all proposed legislative changes that could impact on their business, especially in relation to issues such as sports sponsorship. The fact that the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign is being funded in its entirety by Diageo is big bugbear for opponents, despite the fact that the company lined up quite an impressive list of backers with Fergus Finlay, head of the children’s charity Barnardo’s, appointed as its chairman.
Opponents have reasonable grounds to believe that the campaign backers could end up being ‘used’ by Diageo. Already, one of the backers, Dr Ciara Kelly of Operation Transformation fame, has resigned after only three weeks, citing time constraints.
However in response to her departure, Fergus Finlay vowed that those still involved would not allow themselves to be ‘used as puppets’ by the drinks industry and that he would be an independent chairman. He did acknowledge that all members of the board had some reservations about the campaign being funded by Diageo.
There is no doubt about the need to curb out-of-control drinking, especially among young people who seem to be able to get their hands on alcohol readily and cheaply. According to provisional figures compiled by the Central Statistics Office, consumption of alcohol in Ireland rose again in 2014 by 2.5% over the previous year, on the back on increased wine and beer sales, and that the amount per capita consumed rose to 11 litres, which is still well above the European average of 9.11 litres.
So, who should be tackling this problem? The government is the obvious answer, but it also has a vested interest in terms of the massive amount in taxes the drinks industry contributes to State coffers and successive administrations have been historically loathe to offend these powerful companies.
However, the government has a duty of care to its citizens and when you look at the estimated €2bn each per annum that it costs our health and justice departments to deal with the fall-out from the abuse of alcohol, there is no doubt that it needs to be a lot more pro-active in dealing with out-of-control drinking, instead of letting it to a loose drinks industry-funded group to try to tackle it.
Apart from the sole-funding aspect, there is grave disquiet among opponents of the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign about the fact that it was initiated by Diageo, rightly querying how it could ever be seriously regarded as independent. This is the company that could well sue the government – as it has done in Scotland – if it attempts to introduce legislation for minimum pricing of alcohol here, so it is very difficult to understand the pureness of its motives for initiating and funding the new campaign.
As those opposed to Diageo’s prominent involvement in it have pointed out, any such campaign should be truly independent, led by public health experts who would arrive at conclusions based on solid evidence and purely in the public interest. Credibility is key if we are to properly address Irish people’s often-ambivalent relationship with alcohol, which – like everything else is life – can be good if used in moderation.