Varadkar says stance on alcohol sponsorship ban is consistent

Minister’s spokesman says no conflict with plans to tackle sponsorship aimed at minors

Leo Varadkar: Was unconvinced that sponsorship of sporting events increased overall consumption. Photograph: The Irish Times

Leo Varadkar: Was unconvinced that sponsorship of sporting events increased overall consumption. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

Former minister for tourism and sport Leo Varadkar argued there was “no evidence” that a ban on sports sponsorship by drinks companies would help tackle excessive drinking among young people, new records show.

However, as Minister for Health, Mr Varadkar last month announced plans to restrict the exposure of young people to alcohol-related advertising and sponsorship .

Mr Varadkar’s spokesman has insisted the Minister’s stance was consistent and there was no conflict between his past and current positions on the issue.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, published last month, will put in place minimum pricing for alcohol. It will also regulate alcohol advertising and sponsorship targeted at young people, including a broadcast watershed.

At the time of the Bill’s publication, Mr Varadkar said the new regulations will “ensure that children’s and young people’s exposure to alcohol marketing is considerably diminished”. But in a letter to the then minister for health James Reilly in March 2013, Mr Varadkar argued there was no evidence that children’s exposure to sports sponsorship by drinks companies was harmful.

He cited a report prepared by the Department of Children which showed a reduction over the previous decade in the proportion of young people who reported never having had an alcoholic drink.

“The evidence, therefore, is that the proportion of young people who do not commence drinking before the age of 18 is growing very substantially in Ireland, ” Mr Varadkar wrote. “This has occurred in an era of greatly increased exposure to sports sponsorship by drinks companies, particularly through high-profile tournaments with saturation TV coverage.”

Outright ban

He said the Minister has always supported aims to reduce the level of alcohol consumption in Ireland, but his approach has been to ensure that any measures are evidence-based. This was why Mr Varadkar was a supporter of minimum unit pricing for alcohol which was a “proven and effective way” of reducing alcohol use.

He was not convinced that sponsorship of sporting events increased overall consumption. Instead, he said, it tended to promote one brand of beer or spirit over another. As a result, the new Public Health (Alcohol) Bill does not propose an outright ban on sports sponsorship by drinks companies, though it pledges to review the issue in three years time.

Other correspondence shows Mr Varadkar formally dissented from a recommendation to ban sports sponsorship contained in the National Substance Misuse Strategy. This strategy included a recommendation to phase out drinks industry sponsorship of sports and other large events in legislation from 2016 onwards.

In a letter sent to Dr Reilly in October 2011, he said funding from this advertising was a key source of income for public transport companies and it also helped sports organisations to invest in grassroots activities.

“I am concerned that placing constraints on the sporting organisations by eliminating the drinks industry as a source of sponsorship will have a negative impact on the development and availability of sport, particularly in this current economic climate,” Mr Varadkar wrote.

“As you know, Government funding to the sport sector is reducing and we will not be in a position to replace lost revenue from alcohol industry sponsorship.”

In light of these concerns, he requested that his department’s formal dissent be noted in the report as there would be unintentional consequences for sport and tourism, if “disproportionate and hurried decisions are made on the phasing out of alcohol sponsorship”.