Perception with regard to alcohol in Ireland is not reality. Despite what some might have you believe, consumption of alcohol in Ireland is falling. If we are to have a mature and honest discussion on alcohol consumption, we need to look at the full picture and all the facts. It is vital that we adopt an evidence-based approach to the policymaking in this area.
Per capita, we drink 25 per cent less alcohol than we did 15 years ago and our alcohol is the most expensive in the EU at 175 per cent the average according to Eurostat
Underage alcohol consumption has decreased significantly in the past 30 years. The World Health Organisation stated last March that "Ireland is amongst a group of countries which have the most abstemious adolescents."
The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs published in September also found substantial reductions in alcohol use by teenagers in Ireland between 1995 and 2015. Both studies confirm what we in the industry know – consumption of alcohol in Ireland is in decline, particularly among our young people.
There has also been a decline in people being treated for problem alcohol use. The Health Research Board in their most recent publication on the issue in June 2015, showed that between 2011 and 2013 the number of cases treated for problem alcohol use as well as new and returning cases declined by between 9.8 per cent and 20.8 per cent.
The drinks industry welcomes and is encouraged by these findings, they are positive trends. However we need to ask the question: what’s driving these changes in behaviour? Finding out the answers and harnessing this insight will help us to drive the cultural change ultimately required to reduce harmful use of alcohol in a sustainable fashion. What’s clear however is that legislation alone will not address harmful alcohol consumption.
We need to strike a balance between the employment, exports and tourism growth potential of the sector with the need to address misuse.
The Irish drinks industry is a beacon of success for the rest of our food and drinks sector with exports in excess of €1 billion in 2015. The presence of globally recognised Irish brands on supermarket shelves and in bars and restaurants from Beijing to Boston is something to be proud of.
Irish drinks businesses are buying produce from local farmers, employing local people, using local suppliers and exporting their quality products around the world. Multinationals such as Diageo, Heineken and Irish Distillers, as well as SMEs are continuing to invest in the sector. In 2016, there are more than 200,000 people employed, with a combined wage bill of €4.3 billion, in every corner of Ireland, in jobs supported by the drinks industry.
This is the type of industry and success story that we need our Government to promote. However this success is not guaranteed. The uncertainty associated with Brexit – particularly sterling volatility – as well as its impact on the UK and wider economies can damage consumer confidence and spending. Irish drinks products are typically high-end and are sensitive to consumer sentiment. With the advent of sterling’s volatility, our drinks products are 20 per cent more expensive in the important UK market.
The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill going through the Oireachtas, while well-meaning, is unlikely to make a significant difference to misuse. Our high prices are driven primarily by our high VAT rates and our high excise levels, on average the highest in the EU. Making the EU's most expensive alcohol even more expensive doesn't seem to be a recipe for success. We already have strict co-regulatory and self-regulatory codes of conduct with regard to the content as well as the volume and placement of alcohol advertising. Legislation has a role in helping to provide a regulatory framework for alcohol, however sustained changes in how people consume alcohol will only come about with a change in culture. According to the Department of Health's own commissioned research, 22 per cent of the population consume 66 per cent of alcohol; targeting this group could drive a significant change in misuse.
It is important for the Government to engage all stakeholders in this debate, including drinks companies. Ultimately what’s good for the country is good for the 200,000 employed across the sector. We have a shared responsibility to address misuse, and drinks companies understand this. We should evaluate policy on the basis of its evidence and content instead of its origin. A broad conversation on the drinks industry can ensure we are dealing with reality and not perception. Real change will come from working together, not fighting each other.
Ross MacMathúna is director of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland