Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Accident & Emergency: Alcohol and Ireland

This post continues the Gargle Nation report into teenagers and alcohol.
Following the January high of 569 patients on trolleys in hospital A & E departments, new Health Minister James Reilly recently promised 'action to ensure that the issue of overcrowding in hospital emergency departments would not occur again'.

One issue urgently waiting to be addressed by the new government is the contribution of alcohol to those A&E figures, which according to Alcohol Action Ireland make up a quarter of admissions, 50% of them being injuries to young people under 30. The problem can be traced to what the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) has called 'questionable policy decisions' made after lobbying by the alcohol industry.

In the UK, despite the recent flurry of publicity for its new tough action on alcohol, the Government has lost the backing of The Royal College of Physicians and major health organisations. The College reports that 'Six health organisations have decided not to sign up to the...Public Health Responsibility Deal because of serious reservations about the proposed alcohol pledges.' Three of those six pledges relate to a failure effectively to regulate advertising.

In the words of Alcohol Concern CEO Don Shenker: "This is the worst possible deal for everyone who wants to see alcohol harm reduced. There are no firm targets or any sanctions if the drinks industry fails to fulfil its pledges. It's all carrot and no stick for the drinks industry and supermarkets. The deal on alcohol is clearly the result of determined drinks industry lobbying coupled with a coalition government in thrall to business".

This is also an accurate summary of the position in Ireland, confirming the power of the industry-led lobby in the two countries, led by leading companies such as Diageo, Heineken and Irish Distiller's. The resulting self-regulation of advertising to young people agreed between industry and government has clearly failed on two levels: advertising continues to reach young people, and drinking amongst young people continues to be problematic.

Regulation of advertising in Ireland chiefly relies on a 'quota' system monitored by the industry's own Central Copy Clearance Ireland Ltd and the industry/government-run Alcohol Marketing Communications Monitoring Body. The industry agrees not to run advertisements for alcohol during programmes or in publications thought to have a child/teenage audience of greater than 25% (down from 33% in 2008). Where advertising is permitted, alcohol advertisements will be limited to 25% of the available space. Though the industry called these measures 'tough', they read more like a memo-to self- by marketing managers to remember to place alcohol advertising in 25% of the major media outlets.

On the restricted programming Alcohol Action Ireland have observed:

"Reliance on audience profiling allows alcohol marketing to continue to reach a significant number of children and young people. For example, according to 2008 television viewer figures programmes such as Coronation Street, EastEnders and Fair City attracted some 600,000 to 700,000 viewers with major sports events attracting around the same figures. Applying the 25% rule, it means that up to 150,000 children and young people could be watching these programmes featuring alcohol advertising...Children and young people are bombarded with positive images of alcohol through marketing of the product - in effect, the alcohol industry is a child’s primary educator on alcohol".

And as Professor Gerard Hastings has written, other less regulated means of marketing such as sponsorship are just as effective to the industry. "Although sponsorship is not specifically included in the advertising code, it is a large and powerful part of alcohol promotion. Sponsorship is a way of raising brand awareness, creating positive brand attitudes, and building emotional connections with consumers".

In it's 2009 research report Get 'em Young, the NYCI reports how, despite six years of regulation, young people continue to be reached and influenced by advertising. The report describes how the industry reinforces its message using multiple media, and adopts styles designed to attract them, using "the elements of the alcohol marketing practices that particularly appealed to young people...ads that use humour, are clever, offer cheap/free alcohol and are attractive".

Get 'em Young concludes that "the science is clear as to what works in reducing alcohol harm, which includes high taxation, strict controls on availability, marketing and random breath testing". However, the Irish Government has done the opposite - imposing "no tax increases during economic boom, longer opening hours, free movement of licences, below cost selling of alcohol...and pursued policies that have been shown not to work: information campaigns, education, individual responsibility and self regulation".

And for all the scrutiny of bodies like AMCMB, they fail to monitor the one thing that matters - the rising tide of alcoholism amongst teenagers. After nearly ten years of self-regulation it is painfully clear that it has not impacted a problem that is growing year by year. As reported in the Irish Times in January, a survey of 15- and 16-year-olds showed that "44 per cent of Irish girls and 42 per cent of Irish boys reported binge-drinking in the last month and over half reported being drunk at least once by the age of 16".

And getting back to those hospital waiting rooms, 13 children a day are now hospitalised as a result of alcohol misuse (Alcohol Concern Ireland).

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