Everyone – even drinks companies – needs to challenge our drink culture

There is some carping about Diageo’s involvement in the Stop Out-of-Conrol Drinking campaign, but it shares our commitment to tackling excessive drinking

Stop Out-of-Control Drinking: the campaign is run by an independent board and the board is made up of people from different walks of life. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Stop Out-of-Control Drinking: the campaign is run by an independent board and the board is made up of people from different walks of life. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Ever since we launched the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign, there’s been a simmering controversy about Diageo’s involvement. The fact is that Diageo is funding a campaign that has very specific purposes (and I’ll come back to those purposes in a minute), but the campaign is run by an independent board. That means we make all the decisions.

We expected this controversy about Diageo’s involvement because it echoed the kneejerk reaction that we, the 13 non-Diageo people now on the board, initially had ourselves when we were first asked to get involved. What the dissenters have not digested and assimilated yet is that we have been able to test this first-hand. Diageo is but one voice at the table of 14 board members, and they share our objective to permanently change our drinking culture. Critically, we can also see that they are taking a significant risk themselves by committing to a big objective, the pursuit of which will have a notable bearing on their business in this country, and are doing so as part of a board that they do not control.

That board is made up of people from different walks of life. They’re all giving their time and energy on a pro bono basis. We came together because of one concern: the damage that irresponsible and dangerous drinking does to our economy, our society, our national reputation and legacy. We want to do whatever we can to stop that – and, along the way, we want to work with others, including Government, who share the same concerns. In all of that we have Diageo’s support and participation.

Pernicious relationship

Now, to be honest, I haven’t personally encountered a lot of controversy. I’ve talked to a lot of people, given a lot of radio interviews, and been in a lot of meetings. I’ve yet to meet one person who doesn’t share the aims and objectives of the campaign. Everyone I’ve met is equally concerned about this pernicious relationship we have with alcohol.

The problem for some, it seems, is with Diageo. In their eyes they are some kind of evil empire. The rest of us are knaves or fools because we have been sucked in by some devious corporate entity, and are providing a front for some nefarious public relations stunt.

Well, I’ve worked pretty closely with the board for a while now. Not a knave or a fool among them. Just honourable citizens determined to hold up a mirror to a culture that does immense damage. We’ll take the money and we’ll spend it (we know there are no strings attached) to try to do some good by raising awareness of the issues and encouraging a national debate as a precursor to trying to build a societal consensus and push for cultural change.

As for Diageo, a couple of weeks ago it was a company that most of us in Ireland were pretty proud of. We know it as Arthur Guinness. It’s a company with a long and proud tradition. It runs the most famous brewery in the world – and it’s a Dublin institution. I think the carping about Diageo has been a bit short-sighted given that they have real skin in the game (financial being the least significant aspect) of an improved outcome that we all want.

But here’s the thing. We accepted from the beginning that we would have to build credibility for this campaign, simply because of the incongruity of our funding. If we had €1 million of public money, we’d run exactly the same campaign, and there’d be no controversy. (Except, of course, a different group of people would probably start giving out about the nanny state or some such.)

I’ve spoken, as I said, to a lot of people about this issue. The thing that has amazed me most is that everyone has a story to tell about the consequences of out-of-control drinking. They’ve been hurt, or they’ve hurt other people. They’ve been let down, or they’ve let down other people. They have taken stupid risks with their lives and the lives of others. In the case of some of the people I’ve spoken to in the couple of weeks since this campaign began, they’ve seen lives destroyed, or they’ve almost destroyed their own.

It’s these consequences this campaign is trying to prevent. We are not pushing a corporate agenda. But we’re asking Ireland: why do we have this relationship? Why do we need to drink this way? What motivates us to do this? What can we do to change this culture that generations of us have accepted? How can we implement that change? What must I, we, Government, teachers, health professionals, parents, NGOs and yes, the industry do to create and bring about that change in our attitude, our behaviour and, ultimately, our culture?

Deadly dangerous

We know we can’t change any of that overnight. We don’t know best. (I sometimes think that if the people who say they know best really knew best we’d have cracked this problem a long time ago.) But we’re convinced that we have to start to be honest about it. We abuse alcohol too often. Our relationship with alcohol is too often a poisonous one. The association we make between all sorts of family celebrations and far too much drink is deadly dangerous. Dangerous to us, and dangerous to the generation we’re passing it on to.

That’s the campaign we’re interested in, and we’re going to get on with it. I’ve asked – and I’m asking – anyone who has concerns about any aspect of it to come to our public meetings. Tell us your concerns about the funding, and we’ll listen. But when you’ve done that, help us to start finding ways to change this poisonous love affair. We’ll listen to that too, and we’ll act on it.

Fergus Finlay is chair of the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign

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