A ‘pseudo national holiday’, says Minister

Alex White describes Arthur’s Day as ‘contrived’

 Minister of State Alex White: expressed his concerns about a 30 per cent increase in ambulance call-outs during the event last year.  Photograph: David Sleator

Minister of State Alex White: expressed his concerns about a 30 per cent increase in ambulance call-outs during the event last year. Photograph: David Sleator

Mon, Sep 23, 2013, 22:25

Diageo, the multinational drinks company behind Arthur’s Day, had invented the event as “a pseudo-national holiday” to market its products, particularly to young people, Alex White, Minister of State with Responsibility for Alcohol and Drugs, has said.

In an intervention that will raise pressure on Diageo, which has come under increasing criticism in recent days , Mr White has described Arthur’s Day, which falls on Thursday, as “contrived”. He has expressed his concerns about a 30 per cent increase in ambulance call-outs during the event last year.

“There is a serious problem, not only with the amount of alcohol we drink, but also with the harmful patterns in which it is consumed,” said Mr White.

“Our accident and emergency departments, our Garda stations and the streets of our cities and towns are in the front line of public drunkenness and alcohol-related harm.

“It seems to me that Diageo has invented Arthur’s Day as a pseudo national holiday for the purposes of marketing its products – especially to young people – thereby stimulating greater consumption of alcohol.

“Regrettably, there are too many days of the week and of the year on which over-consumption of alcohol is a real problem, and we do not need to contrive.”

Dr Joe Barry, Professor of Public Health at Trinity College, said the Government must implement the National Substance Misuse Strategy and end all alcohol companies’ sponsorship of music and sporting events. Arthur’s Day was a “festival dedicated to an alcoholic product” he said and Diageo was “getting away with buying musicians and buying people to market its products”.

“This needs to be flushed out. What the Government could do is implement the Department of Health’s National Substance Misuse Strategy. It was published in February last year and we are still waiting for it to be implemented.”

The report from the national steering group on substance misuse was published by the then minister of State for primary care, Roisin Shortall, in February 2012. None of its recommendations has been implemented.

The most controversial of these - that sponsorship of sporting and cultural events by alcohol manufacturers be ended - is opposed by the alcohol industry, some sporting organisations and four cabinet Ministers.

Fergus McCabe, the community and voluntary representative on the National Oversight Forum on Drugs, said Arthur’s Day was “mistaken and wrong”.

“There are already enough events in the calendar to give people an excuse to drink,” he said.

“At least with St Patrick’s Day or an all-Ireland final there’s a reason to celebrate, a focus. With Arthur’s Day the focus is alcohol. It’s a festival dedicated to drinking, and that is not good. I’m not saying I’m not incapable of being dedicated to having a few beers myself, but I feel this is a slap in the face to people trying to promote responsible drinking.

“We have all the statistics about the cost to society of alcohol abuse, and if this is the industry’s response, well it’s a mistake and it’s wrong,” said Mr McCabe.

Suzanne Costello, chief executive of the lobby group Alcohol Action Ireland, said the event prioritised alcohol rather than music and exhorted people to start drinking early in the evening. She dismissed Diageo’s claims that it encouraged people to drink responsibly.

“There has clearly been nothing ‘responsible’ about drinking behaviour on Arthur’s Day in recent years, with a reported 30 per cent increase in ambulance call-outs in Dublin city centre alone following the event last year.

“An avalanche of marketing messages portraying alcohol as a hugely positive product is followed by a request for people to ‘Drink Responsibly’, but only, as ever, after they are first and foremost encouraged to drink, and in this particular case, to start early by raising a pint just before 6pm on a Thursday evening,” said Ms Costello.

“Our relationship with alcohol is not a reason to celebrate and we certainly do not need a manufactured, industry event that further promotes harmful products to young people and which also, sadly and predictably, routinely results in the kind of drinking behaviour that has led us to our current, extremely high levels of alcohol-related harm.

“If Arthur’s Day serves any purpose whatsoever, it is to remind us precisely why a comprehensive national alcohol strategy is needed as a matter of urgency.”