Galway at sharp end of proposed ban on alcoholic sponsorship of sporting events

Horse racing, rugby, yacht racing and cultural events face uncertainty if ban proceeds

Maxime Bourdon and Sébastien Bruas from French company Les Philébulistes performing on giant moving wheels during their acrobatic show Arcane at Eyre Square during the Galway Arts Festival in 2011. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Pick a city where the proposed ban on alcoholic sponsorship of sporting events could have the most significant economic and social impact and that might just be Galway.

The Galway Races, Volvo Ocean Race and Connacht Rugby have all relied heavily on the promotional budgets of alcohol manufacturers, while the compact university city's size-to-age profile has long been an attractive location for testing new products.

Galway racecourse manager John Moloney has said he is "very, very concerned" about the proposed ban, while Galway West TD Brian Walsh has pledged to resist the plan, drafted by Minister of State for Health Alex White, which would ban drinks companies from sponsoring large sporting events by 2020.

Cultural capital
However, the city is also the State's unofficial cultural capital. So when Minister for Transport and Sport Leo Varadkar wondered, in a recent RTÉ radio interview, why the current debate on the proposals did not refer to cultural events, he may have caused a frisson of anxiety among event organisers on the banks of the Corrib and beyond.

Pernod Ricard's Absolut Vodka and Bulmers are sponsors of the arts and comedy festivals respectively, while the Galway Sessions is also pub-based. A cross-section of businesses associated with the 'Latin Quarter', including 18 licensed premises, hold several drink-sponsored street parties annually.


The two annual oyster festivals have long links with alcohol companies, while the Film Fleadh said it receives very little sponsorship from this quarter but that is “not for the want of trying”.

The Arts Council has confirmed that eight major cultural events grant-aided by it received sponsorship from the alcohol industry of €1.2 million in 2011, the most recent figures available.

Some €50,000 of this comprised support given by Pernod Ricard/Absolut for the visual arts dimension in Galway, while the largest proportion of the total was the €750,000 given by the drinks multinational towards the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

The Galway Arts Festival declined to comment on the issue this week, but the Arts Council's view is that a significant amount of work, such as Galway's much-lauded visual arts dimension, wouldn't occur without this sort of support. The council's budget has been cut 30 per cent since 2008 and funding for arts is hard to come by in the current economic climate.

This is echoed by former Galway Arts Festival and Druid Theatre manager Fergal McGrath, recently appointed to head Galway’s Town Hall Theatre, who said withdrawal of alcohol company support would have a significant impact at a time of increased financial pressure.

The Department of Health’s current proposals do not extend to arts, cultural or music events, and the Arts Council said it has no policy on the issue but believes the prevailing view within the sector – as also articulated by Mr Varadkar – is that there is insufficient evidence to show that a ban on alcohol sponsorship might reduce the level of drinking in society.

However, Galway also holds a World Health Organisation "Healthy Cities" title, and Liam O'Loughlin of its Alcohol Forum agrees the relationship between arts, sport and drink sits uneasily with this designation.

NUI Galway has disassociated itself from the annual student rag week, and local councillors have expressed concern about the availability of cheap off-licence alcohol and its use and abuse on city beaches and during family events such as the St Patrick's Day parade. "It's always in your face," said Labour councillor Niall McNelis.

Alcohol-related injuries
Health Service Executive West has estimated that alcohol-related admissions to Galway University Hospital and Portiuncula hospital in Ballinasloe cost €22 million between 2006 and 2011, amounting to 35,149 bed days, while the figure for indirect long-term negative health impact may be multiples of this.

This cost does not include treatment for alcohol-related illnesses and injuries treated in accident and emergency departments, which account for about 30 per cent of all cases treated nationally.

One cultural event which has sought to avoid "inappropriate" sponsorship of any kind believes it has suffered for its stance. The Galway Jazz Festival, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year, adopted a policy of hosting gigs with international artists in venues that were suitable for a young audience.

Galway City Council, which provides grant aid to the main cultural events, earmarked €15,000 for the jazz festival but then reduced it successively to a proposed €3,000 last year. After some debate among councillors a figure of €6,925 was agreed.

“We sat there and heard a senior official describing us as offering poor value for money, and our event was compared unfavourably to the Galway Sessions, which are pub-based musical events,” said jazz festival board member Martin Beuster.

“We want to take jazz to young people, and we have had excellent musicians, but we cannot sail into schools to run workshops under the banner of a drinks company, or indeed any inappropriate sponsor, be it fast food or fast drink,” he said.

“We are not anti-drink, but if our approach means that we have to be less ambitious with our programming, so be it. We would hope the city council would be more supportive of what we are trying to do.”

O'Loughlin said the Galway Healthy Cities Alcohol Forum would be in favour of a sponsorship ban and that, contrary to Varadkar's contention, there is plenty of research available to support this.

Youth drinking
Such sponsorship is simply "marketing", O'Loughlin said, adding there are a number of reports on the impact on young people, whose developing brains make them most vulnerable to the negative long-term effects of alcohol consumption.

Last December, the European Alcohol Measures for Public Health Research Alliance published a report on the impact of European alcohol marketing exposure on youth alcohol expectancies and youth drinking, comprising two studies on online alcohol marketing and alcohol-branded sport sponsorship in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland.

The study of 6,652 students concluded that alcohol-branded sport sponsorship influences alcohol consumption among adolescents, and exposure to sport sponsoring can influence drinking.

“Since sport sponsoring is poorly regulated in most countries and its effect on alcohol consumption is evident, policy-makers are recommended to take action on alcohol marketing via sports events in order to prevent hazardous drinking among youth,” the report said.

The Healthy Cities Alcohol Forum has published the five-year “Galway City Strategy to Prevent and Reduce Alcohol-Related Harm (2013-2017)”, and has drawn up festival care guidelines to help reduce exposure to drink.

“We are not saying that a ban on event sponsorship would solve all ills – drinks companies have a huge influence now in social media, for instance – but we are saying that steps can be taken, and our festival care guidelines, which are voluntary, aim to get organisers thinking about it,” Mr O’Loughlin said.

“Nor are we prohibitionists, but our consultation found that the extent of alcohol consumption was also putting people, including young families, off coming into the city, so that’s another aspect that could be borne in mind.”

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times