Frank Murray: It is shocking that children see more alcohol adverts than adults
France has achieved a 25 per cent decline in alcohol consumption since introducing advertising restrictions via the “Loi Evin”. Photograph: Fran Veale
This overwhelming support was consistently held across individuals of all party preferences. Our poll findings highlight yet again that public opinion is ahead of sectoral interests and their lobbyists.
Over recent days, we have witnessed the power of the drinks industry as they swamped the pages of our national and regional media with spurious claims of a “threat” to local community arts and cultural events, and “decimated” advertising revenue to the media industry. This is a tactic to combat proposed, government-led, public health legislation to tackle the wide-ranging harm caused by alcohol in Ireland.
The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, contains a range of measures designed to work together to reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland so lessening alcohol-related harms. Implemented together, they will provide a reasonable, pragmatic means to achieving the ambition of a progressive public health policy.
For the record, there are no provisions within the Public Health Alcohol Bill to prohibit alcohol products’ sponsorship of arts or cultural events, or nor will there be a ban on alcohol advertising.
Alcohol sponsorship offers significant opportunities for distinct marketing and competitive advantage. It increases brand awareness, helps generate customer preference and crucially fosters brand loyalty by association. In 2017, it is anticipated that the Irish advertising market will likely exceed €1.1 billion while the sponsorship market will be worth approximately €173 million. The drinks industry will spend close on €50 million on direct advertising.
Only a minute amount of this spending will likely be affected by the provisions of the Bill, as drinks companies will be allowed to continue to advertise their brands, including an image of the product, an image or reference to its place of origin, its method of production, its price, its brand marque, its name, its logo, a description of its flavour and so on.
The aim of the modest set of regulations in the proposed Bill is to limit the appeal of alcohol advertising and marketing, particularly to children. The Bill will forbid aligning alcohol products with performance, success, social inclusion or a variety of other positive outcomes. These are very reasonable steps. It is shocking to realise that children see more alcohol advertisements than adults, and that children are more aware of alcohol brands than ice cream brands.
The regulations on alcohol marketing proposed are carefully considered measures that highlight “joined-up thinking” in Government policy, as it aims to delay the onset of children commencing drinking alcohol, and to reduce the high prevalence of binge drinking. There is a compelling body of research evidence that demonstrates that exposure to alcohol marketing, whether on TV, in cinema, in public places or alcohol-branded sponsorship, predicts future youth drinking.
Numerous longitudinal studies have demonstrated that children and young people who are exposed to alcohol marketing are more likely to start drinking, or if already drinking, to drink more. The National Drug Treatment Reporting System (NDTRS) recently highlighted that more than half of those with alcohol dependence syndromes in treatment commenced drinking alcohol at 16 years old and younger.
The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, which has been continually delayed by our legislators, offers all of society a historic opportunity. It represents the first time Ireland has addressed what Dr Geoffrey Shannon, Special Rapport for Child Protection, has called “our ambivalence towards alcohol”. It will affect a suite of reasonable and pragmatic measures to reduce our high-risk alcohol consumption of alcohol, which has grown three-fold in two generations, so lessening the dreadful impact of alcohol-related harms. It will offer our children the prospect of a better life; an opportunity to grow up in a confident culture where not every event of their lives must be marked by the popping of a bottle or the crack of a can.
The measures in the Bill are evidence-based and have been shown to work elsewhere. France has achieved a 25 per cent decline in alcohol consumption since introducing advertising restrictions via the “Loi Evin”. Norway and Iceland achieved rapid and sustained reductions in adolescent drinking following such restrictions. The outcomes in Iceland are remarkable. They have achieved a reduction of 90 per cent in the rates on drunkenness over 15 years.
Drinking alcohol is an individual choice for adults. However, collectively, as a society, there are significant negative health, social and economic impacts to our high levels of alcohol consumption. In a free, open market economy, business must have the freedom to develop and prosper.
And, while most citizens must take responsibility for their own actions, society, and our Government, cannot rely on this approach alone as it grapples with the consequences, costs and impact of excessive alcohol consumption on our beleaguered health, social protection and criminal justice systems.
The market and the drinks industry will not resolve our national alcohol crisis. The State must act to protect its citizens, especially its children, from alcohol, which is a mind-altering carcinogen with profound addictive properties. Evidence-based research dictates that public health measures like those in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill must be enacted now, to curb our high-risk levels of alcohol consumption. The rights of the commercial interests of the alcohol industry must be rebalanced to allow for reasonable interventions that support society’s endeavour to live healthier, and more productive, lives.
Prof Frank Murray is Chair of Alcohol Health Alliance Ireland and is a liver specialist at Beaumont Hospital