Will the alcohol ban be diluted?
We should not underestimate the power of the alcohol industry and its lobbying abilities as a ban on the sponsorship of sporting events by drinks companies is mooted, see below for 4 July column from the Medical Independent
Minister of State at the Department of Health Alex White wants to ban the alcohol drinks industry from sponsoring major sporting bodies and contests, but not from arts festivals or smaller sports events. The Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Sport are opposed to it, having been effectively lobbied by many sporting organisations.
Mr Philip Browne of the Irish Rugby Football Union argues that organisations like his, which receive significant funding from the alcohol industry, protect the young people who participate in sport. So what is the evidence on the presence of alcohol sponsorship in sport and young people’s drinking habits?
A recent systematic review measured the extent that young people are exposed to advertising and their drinking behaviour over time. The study, by academic researchers in Holland and the UK, Anderson et al, 2009, found strong evidence linking alcohol marketing and alcohol use in young people. The review found 13 studies suitable for inclusion and of these, “12 of the 13 found evidence that such exposure predicts both the onset of drinking amongst non-drinkers and increased levels of consumption among existing drinkers”. It found a clear relationship between greater exposure to advertising and marketing and earlier use for non drinkers and increased use for existing drinkers. This reiterates what many other studies have found.
The alcohol industry invests in sports marketing so that they can sell more alcohol. Their bottom line is, after all, determined by sales, which is driven by consumption. Because there are so many restrictions on alcohol marketing, the alcohol industry uses any channels it has left. As a result, the alcohol industry uses sport as its primary vehicle for its marketing budget.
Anheuser Busch – the world’s largest brewer with nearly 25 per cent of the global market share of beer – had profits of €6 billion dollars in 2011. In the first six months of 2009, it spent 80 per cent of its advertising budget on sporting events in the USA, totalling €157 million. And it is not just alcohol that uses sports to market; it is also junk food and gambling companies.
Mr Browne said that banning alcohol sponsorship of sports events would prevent young people becoming involved in sports, which would be more damaging to their health than their alcohol intake.
Interestingly, research on this shows that sports works as a protective factor for tobacco and illicit drug use, but not for alcohol use. In fact, it finds that young people involved in sports, particularly team sports, are more likely to engage in alcohol misuse. There is also some emerging research about higher levels of engagement in risky behaviours by young people involved in team sports – more likely to drink and drive, to be victims or engaged in violent physical assaults and hazardous behaviours such as unsafe sex.
The WHO advocates that reducing alcohol availability, alcohol sponsorship/marketing bans and restrictions, and minimum pricing for alcohol are key to stopping young people starting drinking alcohol early and preventing abusive intake. This growing international evidence base linking alcohol sponsorship of sports and alcohol use is why such a ban was recommended by a government advisory group on substance use and why it was a core component of the original version of the alcohol proposals drafted by former primary care minister Roisin Shortall.
What is now being proposed is a watered down version of what was developed under Roisin Shortall, as arts and cultural festivals are off the hook and it only applies to advertising of large sports events. Small sporting organisations will still be allowed get sponsorship. The research on this found that indirect marketing can be more insidious. For example, where certain sports clubhouses only serve certain drinks, where alcohol companies or pubs cover the costs of sports gear, trips or holidays, or where winning sports people arrive into clubhouses to drink certain drinks, this can have a greater impact on increased alcohol use than direct marketing such as naming rights.
The legislation is currently with Cabinet for observations. Minister White has already compromised on the original proposals, but he has also kept more Cabinet members on board. Politics is the art of persuasion after all.
However, do not underestimate the power of industry; they are out in force evident in the recent stance by the Oireachtas Committee Transport and Sport and Ministers Jimmy Denehan, Pat Rabitte, Leo Vradkar and Simon Coveney, who have come out against various aspects of the ban. It is quite possible that more of the proposed legislation will be watered down. It will be interesting to see what is left in the Bill when it is published.