Thursday, 31 March 2011

Teenage deaths rise. Is alcohol regulation in Ireland safe in the industry's hands?

This week the British government is debating whether to follow France in limiting advertising of alcohol in order to stem the alarming rise in alcohol-related teenage deaths.  The BMJ reports that 23% of teenage deaths (nearly two per day) in the UK are attributable to alcohol, fuelled by what the editor calls "two pressing and uncontested problems: the excessive drinking of young people and their massive exposure to alcohol advertising".

Further research by Gerard Hastings of Stirling University on The Failure of Self Regulation tells us that advertising, pricing and marketing have a large influence on the growth in drinking and on teenage drinking in particular, echoing similar findings in a report by the Health Promotion Unit of the Irish Dept. of Health and Children in 2001.  Summing up the received wisdom from research and health advisors, Trish Groves, Editor of the BMJ writes that "health and societal costs of alcohol misuse are best prevented through legislation on pricing and marketing.... It is time to put away the rhetoric, popular with the drinks industry, that alcohol misuse is largely an individual problem best avoided and managed through education, counselling, and medical treatment."  



The need for alcohol regulation is clear in Ireland too, where unsafe drinking levels exceeds those of the UK.  But efforts by charities, health groups and academics to get together with governments to do something about this have been frustrated by the alcohol industry's more powerful lobbying.  In the UK and Ireland the Portman Group, which represents the larger alcohol producers, monitors its own advertising standards and delivers alcohol education through its Drinkaware Trust, drinkaware.ie and the Irish group MEAS (Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society Ltd).  MEAS 's members include well known names such as Diageo, Heinekin and Irish Distillers but claims to have "no economic purpose and is operationally independent from drinks industry companies".  However, according to research by Rob Baggott for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation,  insiders think that the Portman group simply "enables the companies to dispel suspicions, appear caring and satisfy shareholders that it is dealing with the long-term potential threats to its business such as anti-industry campaigns and increased government regulation".

The report quotes one respondent as saying : “The industry proved to be very influential during the review of alcohol strategy. Initially, before the politicians really got involved, much was left to the civil servants and an expert group. Problems began when the politicians got involved. Industry lobbied them behind the scenes about their concerns regarding the strategy. The strategy then began to move away from the evidence base and [became] more aligned with the industry’s perspectives”.


In UCD's Sociology Lecturer Kieran Allen's book The Corporate Takeover of Ireland*, he describes a similar situation in Ireland:  "...in 2005 the industry gained access to key decision makers resulting in the scrapping of the Alcohol Products Bill"  which had been intended to address the issue of alcohol sales.  MRPA Kinman, a PD-linked PR company whose CEO was at the time the husband of the then Minister for Health Mary Harney, successfully lobbied for the industry.  Lobbying also took place "through Junior health Minster Sean Power, who also happened to be a publican."

Allen continues:

 "Industry lobbying was also effective in drawing up codes of practice.  Journalist Fintan O'Toole describes how the new voluntary code for advertising alcohol in cinemas was written by none other than Carlton Screen Advertising. O' Toole writes that 'The Department of Health were so subservient to industry that they even used the same grammatical errors as the original version supplied by the company!"

Meanwhile drinkaware.ie is doing funny things with the concept of alcohol awareness.  It's subliminal message appears to be 'do drink alcohol'.  On St Patrick's day,  for example,  their advice as reported in the Irish Times was effectively for people to eat and drink all day, or as they put it "imbibe on St Patrick’s Day" "starting the day with a decent meal" , "have something to eat too", "eat between drinks" and for people to "pace themselves".  In the implied expectation that readers taking this advice were going to binge drink it also  advised "not to drive the morning after".

That drinkaware.ie should seem to be endorsing a binge is consistent with its published advice.  Drinkaware.co.uk  refers to the NHS definiton of bingeing as "drinking more than double the daily recommended units of alcohol in one session" (ie bingeing is more than three pints of beer for men, two glasses of wine for women). Drinkaware.ie instead focuses on the "disagreement over what is called binge drinking" and tells us that if we drink "over the course of an evening of eating and socialising it is clearly inappropriate to equate it with a binge".  So if we drink to excess with friends it's alright then?

When challenged about the effects on young people of mass advertising the alcohol industry points to its advertising code which includes an agreement not to portray young people who drink as attractive or socially successful.  The current drinkaware.ie TV information film, in the opinion of this author, cleverly undermines the code by doing just that.  Showing mock CCTV footage, several scenarios of  good looking, happy young people fall about with friends in tow accompanied by a soundtrack of laughter and upbeat music.  One of them falls down a flight of stairs, is helped up again and walks away without injury.  The info-ad ends with a nod to the dangers of what has been shown: a shot of a disapproving, middle-aged couple witnessing an unconvincing brawl in a hospital waiting area with a down-beat, counter-point voice-over asking  "Still think thats all just a bit of a laugh?"  The latter does little to cancel out the impression of mildly questioned, drink-fuelled fun we've just seen.  It's as if the question itself is intended to be a party-pooper - it's so ambiguous in the context.  

While the industry assumes credit for investing in this kind of educational material, the amount spent on advertising far outweighs it.   In UK figures the industry invested £5 million over three years on education, but as Spinwatch reports this 'falls short of Alcohol Concern's belief that £20 million a year would be needed for the trust to fulfil its responsibilities'.  By contrast the UK drinks industry spent between £600m and £800m on marketing in 2004 with estimates that of this total, £200-250m was spent on advertising'. 

So given the rise in teenage drinking and deaths, should we be restricting alcohol advertising further as in the UK ?  According to the College of Psychiatry of Ireland we shouldn't be advertising it at all. "The negative impact that early alcohol use has on the developing teenage brain has never been clearer " said Dr Bobby Smyth of the College of Psychiatry of Ireland in September 2010.  "Alcohol advertising is one of the strategies by which the drinks industry as a whole stimulates alcohol use in the country.  We think it would be better to take our foot off that particular accelerator and to terminate all advertising and sponsorship for the moment."

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