Drinks industry is willing to work with Government to combat misuse of alcohol
There is no evidence a ban on sponsorship of sporting events will impact on problem drinking
Tourists come to Ireland and hope to visit places connected with our beer and whiskey industries just as they would want to visit a vineyard in France. Photograph: Reuters
I work in the alcohol industry. I work so that people can share a drink with colleagues in the pub on a Friday evening. I work so that people can invite friends over for Sunday dinner and enjoy a drink with their meal. Working for Irish Distillers also means that I promote the craftsmanship and tradition of Irish whiskey – a product that is experiencing a global renaissance and is an important part of Ireland’s food and drink success in recent years. This is what it means to be part of the drinks industry.
I very much welcome the current debate on alcohol and society, and want to be very clear on behalf of the industry that we are absolutely committed to tackling misuse. However, I also want to be clear that to suggest otherwise is not only untrue but unfair to more than 62,000 people who work in our sector.
I am not blind to the problem of alcohol misuse. Working in this industry without commitment to promoting responsible drinking would be like working in the car industry and not caring about seat belts and brakes. Drinking too much or too often has negative consequences for individuals, for their families and for wider society. We value our customers and wish them long, happy and healthy lives.
We in the Irish drinks industry agree with the vast majority of the proposals in the National Substance Misuse Strategy. However, some parts of Government do not appear willing to engage with us on this topic. If they would engage they would see how committed we are to promoting responsible drinking.
When considering the problems with alcohol, it is important we acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of people consume alcohol responsibly. It is a fact that alcohol consumption in this country has fallen by more than 19 per cent since 2001, and our consumption levels are fast approaching European norms. A Unicef report of 29 countries, published earlier this year, found the percentage of young people who reported having been drunk on more than two occasions has fallen in Ireland. Irish consumption is falling and youth consumption is declining.
It is, of course, still vital that we implement policies that are scientifically proven to combat alcohol misuse. There are many such examples, some of which are very well-articulated in the current proposal from the Department of Health. However, I would like to see further initiatives explored, specifically in the area of young adult education. For example, I know from my own experience in my home country of Sweden how effective education can be and I would be happy to share independent Swedish research with anyone who would like to discuss this science-based approach. But some of the proposals being considered by the Irish Government will be completely ineffective in combating alcohol misuse and at the same time bring with them many negative economic consequences for this important industry.
I would like to give two examples.
First, let us consider the proposed ban on sponsorship. While initial reports indicated that all sporting, cultural and arts events would be banned from using alcohol sponsorship by 2020, recent media reports seem to imply that this ban would now only apply to major sporting events. As was noted by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications in its Report on Sponsorship of Sports by the Alcohol Drinks Industry, there is no evidence to show that banning the sponsorship of sporting events will have an impact on reducing alcohol misuse. It would, however, remove a significant source of funding from our sporting organisations. Also, I do not believe that this is where the ban on sponsorship will end. Next in line will be undoubtedly be events related to the arts, culture and music.
Does anyone really believe that preventing Jameson Irish Whiskey from sponsoring the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival would lead to less misuse of alcohol? Connecting a premium brand to a premium Irish cultural event is a great way of saying that the product is an authentic and sophisticated one. Irish Distillers sponsors this festival in order to connect the Jameson brand internationally with a premium, cultural, Irish event and through this gain market share globally from the dominant Scotch and American whiskeys. This home-grown activity helps build the Jameson brand worldwide which in turn, leads to more jobs in Ireland.
Second, let’s take the proposed ban on outdoor advertising. It has already been pointed out that countries such as France have implemented tough laws on alcohol advertising to little effect. Even supporters of restrictions admit that such measures are “symbolic” rather than scientific.
But consider the negative economic effects of this restriction. Job losses in advertising agencies and related companies will be the most direct impact. And will my colleagues at Diageo be allowed to advertise Dublin’s biggest tourist attraction, the Guinness Storehouse? Will Irish Distillers be allowed to advertise our visitor centres in Dublin and Cork? Consider the many business contacts that companies such as Irish Distillers bring from all over the world to Ireland to showcase the heritage of Irish whiskey. This year alone we will purchase more than 7, 000 hotel nights for these guests. What sense will this make if they arrive in a country that seems to be deeply ashamed of its own whiskey heritage?
Irish drinks brands are among the most prominent exports from this island – valued at more than €1 billion and renowned for their quality, craft and ingredients. Our brands’ visitor centres attract nearly 1.5 million people every year. And that is why, when prominent people visit our country, they choose to visit these places, just as they might chose to visit a champagne vineyard in France or a malt distillery in Scotland. We are proud of our quality products; it is the misuse of these products that we need to address.
I hope people reading this will want to work together with us to make sure that Ireland becomes a society that is proud of its sociable cultural heritage, and where binge drinking or antisocial behaviour is not tolerated. This, coincidentally, is also the best future I could wish for Irish whiskey and the alcohol sector in general.
Anna Malmhake is chair of the Alcohol Beverage Federation and chief executive of Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard