Drinks companies’ sponsorship of sport will end - the only question is when
Arguments of the alcohol lobby have all been heard before from the cigarette lobby
Tommy Bowe scores a try at the Aviva stadium. The IRFU, GAA and FAI are trying to protect the status quo. Photograph: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
The proposal to phase out alcohol sponsorship of big sporting events is sensible, practical and to be expected. It should be uncontroversial.
There is, after all, nothing knee-jerk about how the Department of Health has arrived at the decision and nothing hasty about how it will be implemented. The tap of alcohol money is not being turned off immediately and sports organisations will be given considerable time to adjust - 2020 has been mentioned as the cessation date - to reconsider their commercial strategies.
Nonetheless, the response from industry and from the country’s premier sporting organisations gives the impression that this is a policy bolt from the blue - and a potentially ruinous one at that. Opposition to the plan is grounded in the argument that sport, at national and grassroots levels, would suffer irreparable damage from the withdrawal of money from the major drink companies.
It is rooted, too, in the rubbishing of claims that there is any cause and effect at work in the sponsorship of sporting events and organisations. Sean Kelly, Fine Gael MEP and former GAA president, made this clear on Morning Ireland recently, stating that sponsorship ban proposals are based on mere “opinion, not evidence”.
He is hardly alone in that view. It has become the default defence of the drinks industry and their sporting dependants. When the leaders of the three major sporting organisations - the FAI, the GAA and the IRFU - came together to protect the status quo to the all-party Committee on Transport and Communication in March this year, they too pointed to an absence of evidence of a possible beneficial effect of reducing alcohol misuse in society.
But drink sponsorship is not neutral. It does have an impact: indeed, that’s the whole point of it and there is evidence to prove that this is the case. Some of this evidence, specifically on the effect of alcohol advertising on young people, was presented by Professor Joe Barry of Alcohol Ireland to the same Oireachtas Committee, including the findings of a European Commission study which showed an association between exposure to alcohol sports sponsorship and increased drinking among schoolchildren. He also cited evidence of a similar nature from Australia and New Zealand.
Little about the current debate is new of course. In many ways, what we are witnessing now is the reheating of arguments that were previously played out over cigarettes. And it’s instructive to look back at that debate to see where we are heading with this one. Opposition to cigarette advertising and sponsorship in Ireland around sport built steadily from the 1960s, led, for the most part, by Dr. Noel Browne - of Mother and Child scheme fame. Browne brought to the issue a medic’s knowledge and a social campaigner’s zeal and in the Dáil in 1964 he was withering in his assessment of reputable sporting bodies who propounded a concern for the welfare of youth and yet had allowed themselves become “cheap advertisement for the cigarette companies”.
Browne’s remarks, however trenchant, had little immediate impact. A decade later and cigarette sponsorship of big sporting events bordered on the ubiquitous: from the GAA All-Stars to the Irish Open Golf championship, high profile sport defiantly bore the branding of major tobacco manufacturers whose promotional opportunities had already been limited by the imposition of restrictions on cigarette advertising.
Two developments eventually turned the tide against cigarette sponsorship. One was the advocacy of determined, medically informed, lobby groups like the Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society. The second was the growing public policy emphasis on preventive over curative medicine, which found expression in, among other things, the Tobacco Products (Control of Advertising Sponsorship & Sales Promotion) Bill, 1978- a modest but significant legislative milestone introduced by Charles Haughey as Minister for Health.