Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Are you on the dry for February?

Short-term initiatives like the On the Dry campaign or Operation Transformation TV show will not fix Ireland’s long-term alcohol and obesity problems

Mon, Feb 2, 2015, 09:52


The first month of 2015 has come to a close and you could probably feel the relief across the land over the weekend. Paydays had arrived so people had money in their pocket again and that post-Christmas slump became a thing of the past. Time for many to mark the occasion in the only way many Irish people know with a few pints or glasses of whatever-you’re-having-yourself.

For some, it was also an opportunity to say goodbye to the Irish Heart Foundation’s non-drinking campaign On the Dry, which was launched in a blaze of publicity and celebrities last December. They went so far as to trademark such slogans as “on the dry” and “stay in, stay dry” as they tried to convince those who’d over-indulged in December to knock it off for January. It’s probably going to be the new Movember.

It is a commendable idea but, as Brian O’Connell pointed out a few weeks ago, the campaign did send out some questionable ideas about the nature of abstinence from alcohol. “Abstaining from alcohol is presented as a daunting challenge worthy of sponsorship, like an attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro”, noted O’Connell. “This raises interesting questions: what if someone cannot abstain from alcohol for the whole month? Does that mean life without alcohol is unbearable? And once January is over, is it back then to whatever levels of alcohol consumption the participant likes?”

On the one hand, you can understand why the IHF went all in on this campaign. Something, they probably figured, was probably better than nothing and if you present abstinence like the ice bucket challenge and throw in a few celebs, you just might get Irish people to give up the gargle for the month. But the problem is that such short-term thinking is just not good enough, no matter how well-meaning the intentions behind it. Given Irish society’s harmful, unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship with alcohol (it’s worth looking at these figures or this report if you’re not convinced about this or count the number of times drink or excessive drink are mentioned as a contributing factor in court reports or news stories), a campaign like On the Dry does absolutely nothing to tackle the bigger issues. Alcohol problems are not just for December and January, you know.

In many ways, it distracts from the more pressing questions over how and why the country gets so sozzled and what should be done about this. Getting people to go “on the dry” for a month is a sideshow, a distraction, which allows people to ignore the problems which occur up and down the country, in every town and village, every month of the year. We get het up and exercised over our relationship with alcohol once or twice a year for a day or two at most – those occasions which bring about fuming opinion pieces and 24 hour news cycle blitzes about things like Welfare Wednesday or Children’s Allowance Day beer offers or, indeed, Arthur’s Day - and then forget about it for another few months. The long-term approach, the approach which is difficult to take, implement and maintain, is never an option.

This kind of smoke and mirrors carry-on is par for the course with many health issues. Look at how we’re dealing with obesity and trying to tackle that via a reality TV show. Dr Jacky Jones wrote a very good piece last week about how the “superficial approach” taken by shows like Operation Transformation just does not work.

“Advice-giving programmes, no matter how entertaining, have little or no effect on the health behaviour of the population as a whole”, Jones wrote. “They perpetuate the belief that everyone needs a dietitian, a personal trainer and psychological help in order to bring about behavioural change. In fact, 90 per cent of people change their health habits without any professional expertise, access to a gym or specialised advice. Anyone can change; they just need to eat a little less and move a bit more. Viewers who are a little overweight will look at the leaders and think that at least they, the viewers, are not that fat or unfit and put off changing their habits for another while.”

RTE, naturally, enough disagreed with this opinion, but the point remains that a TV show in itself can have absolutely no long-term effect on Ireland’s obesity problems. As with the TV shows dedicated to unearthing new musical talent demonstrate again and again, TV shows are about creating TV moments and nothing more. Witness the brouhaha last week over one of the show’s participants “getting drunk on TV”. Will this lead to a long-term, lengthy debate about alcohol, weight gain and health? Will it feck. It will simply lead to a rise in audience figures as people tune in this week to see more indignation and embarrasment.

Again, as with On the Dry, the idea behind Operation Transformation is commendable and you can see the effects all around you, even on a purely anecdotal level. Every January and February, for instance, I see groups of people out running and walking very fast around my ‘hood, obviously encouraged by the show and the publicity around the show to get out there and get moving. The problem is that most of them are not still in moving game five or six months later. As soon as the show ends, most participants fall back into their previous behaviour patterns and don’t change until the show comes around the following January. And then the cycle starts all over again.

As with On the Dry, these short-term initiatives don’t do anything to address or fix the long-term, society-wide problems to do with obesity. In fairness, that’s not the intention behind them. But the problem is that such initiatives allow the bigger problems around alcohol abuse and obesity to escape scrutiny, examination and analysis. The focus should really be on making shows which, as Jones points out in her piece, “expose the determinants of obesity” such as food advertising, labelling, sugar and bad planning. Likewise, the IHF might be better served by ditching the celebs and going deep on why alcohol has such a grip on Irish society at all levels and why we’re content to let that happy.

But it’s far easier to make a TV show where overweight people are humiliated or round up some of the usual suspects to give up drink for a month than spend time, money and effort on taking the long-term view on such serious health problems. It also sidesteps the task of examining and tackling the societal and class problems around our relationship with food and alcohol which often allow such problems to develop and spread. And yet, we’ll continue to be surprised at why these problems continue to exist.