Treating drinks industry like a pariah won't solve alcohol abuse problem

Friday, 14 March 2014

THE debate around alcohol in our society is an emotive one, and in the lead up to St Patrick's Day it is likely to feature again.

But all too often, a sense of perspective can be missing from the debate. Let us not forget that the vast majority of Irish people consume alcohol in a manner that is not harmful. We drink less, per head of population, than the French and alcohol consumption has been in constant decline over the last 12 years.

Furthermore, moderate consumption of alcohol is entirely compatible with a healthy diet. Indeed, a recent International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research (ISFAR) study found that light drinkers (1.5 standard glasses a day) showed a statistically significant (9pc) lower risk of developing cancer when compared to abstainers.

That is not to dismiss the importance of addressing alcohol misuse by the minority. Binge drinking and underage drinking are concerns for the industry. We want to work with Government in order to address this abuse of our products. Yet the Department of Health and the anti-drinks industry lobby's refusal to engage with us to enable a solution-based approach to alcohol misuse is obtuse, narrow-minded and short-sighted.

Alex White wrote in this newspaper a few weeks ago, under the headline 'Difficult choices will have to be made if we want to tackle our drink problem'. He referenced the package of measures contained in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill that is currently being drafted, but he refuses to engage with us to consider how these measures could be introduced in an effective manner. I would challenge the minister that one of the difficult choices that he needs to make is to engage with the drinks industry, as is done in most other EU countries, in order to agree an effective approach to alcohol abuse. The drinks industry has to be part of the solution, rather than have to communicate through the pages of a national newspaper. Isolating the industry is an unfortunate strategy by the Department of Health and will only succeed in implementing poor rules.

Surely, the one thing we can agree on is that solving alcohol misuse in Ireland needs a whole-of-society approach.

I often debate with members of the anti-drinks industry lobby who feel that because a minority of Irish people abuse alcohol, the entire drinks industry should be punished. There is the view that the drinks industry in some way condones or encourages the abuse of our products. Let me be very clear, nothing could be further from the truth. No one wants to see alcohol misused and abused. The drinks industry does not condone binge drinking or alcohol being sold at a cheaper price than water. Furthermore, the suggestion that the industry in some way condones harmful behaviour is offensive and wrong to the 62,000 men and women employed in the industry here.

Around 140,000 people visited Ireland for the St Patrick's Day festivities last year. Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar said money spent by holidaymakers during the event has more than doubled since three years ago, to €121m. According to the 'Lonely Planet', visiting the pub is a top tourist attraction.

Socialising, the pub culture and quality Irish alcohol brands are a key part of Ireland's appeal. We do not see the French rebuking their wineries, so why does this country treat a legitimate industry like a pariah?

The industry is castigated for funding and Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society, but they are the only organisations that attempt to change consumer behaviour around the abuse of alcohol. Indeed, the CEO of MEAS, Fionnuala Sheehan, was among the first people to warn of the dangers of Neknomination.

A report in this paper a couple of weeks ago shone a light on the issue of 'cheap booze'. It is the retailers, not the manufacturers who are responsible for setting the price. Our members manufacture quality products, and we do not wish to see them discounted and sold at a loss. We believe that a reinstatement of a ban on the below-cost selling of alcohol should be brought in, as this was a very effective system before it was abolished in 2006.

The reality is this – whether you work in the alcohol sector, are a health professional or are raising a family, we all want to live in a society where we drink in moderation and it is uncool to be drunk. Shifting societal norms takes time but consider the success that we had in changing opinion about drink-driving. A similar, inclusive, results-focused approach to shifting behaviours over a generation is now required to address the minority that misuse alcohol. No one has the right to exclude any sector from the debate. The drinks industry in Ireland wants a long-term, sustainable future here. We want to realise a society where alcohol is enjoyed, not abused, and getting drunk is not socially acceptable. We want it to be uncool to be drunk. We want to work with Government in order to realise this.