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The behind-the-scenes machinations shaping the government’s new alcohol laws

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill aims to impose restrictions on alcohol advertising in Ireland.

Image: Shutterstock/SpeedKingz

The new Public Health (Alcohol) Bill has been under consideration by the government since late 2015 but has not yet been enacted. It is a far-reaching bill with new legislation on aspects such as minimum pricing, advertising and product labelling.

Over the next few weeks, TheJournal.ie will look at different aspects of the bill, the sides for and against the measures, and the effect the bill will have.

THE PUBLIC HEALTH (Alcohol) Bill was published by then-Minister for Health Leo Varadkar in December 2015.

It has a wide-ranging set of measures designed to reduce the effects of alcohol-related harm in Ireland.

An important aspect of the legislation relates to how alcohol can be advertised, both in shops and supermarkets, on billboards and at sporting events.

While the Bill has cross party support, a number of changes were recommended after it was debated at committee stage. Politicians have also highlighted how a great deal of lobbying has been done by industry to try and amend other aspects before it gets signed into law.

Advertising Restrictions

Some of the restrictions included in the bill relate to advertising in public spaces, at events and in media outlets.

In terms of outdoor advertising, ads promoting an alcohol product would be prohibited in or on public service vehicles, at bus stops and in or at a train or bus station.

Outdoor advertising within 200 metres of a school or playground will also be banned.

At the committee stage (the third stage, after it has been debated in the Dáil), it was proposed that the following line was put in: “Advertising, indirect advertising and other sales promotion of an alcohol product is prohibited if it is carried out or aimed at the general public in public places.”

It was also proposed that alcohol sponsorship of sport would be phased out by the end of 2023, and that sponsorship of any event which is particularly aimed at children is also banned.

Another amendment tabled related to the broadcast watershed for alcohol advertising.

Addressing the committee, Minister of State Marcella Corcoran Kennedy explained: “It states that advertisements for alcohol products cannot be broadcast on television before 9pm and that such advertisements cannot be broadcast on the radio other than between the hours of 10am and 3pm on weekdays.

The watershed times have been agreed in consultation with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, which have the intelligence in this area.

A spokesperson for Alcohol Action Ireland told TheJournal.ie that while advertising restrictions alone will not solve the public health crisis of alcohol in this country, all of the measures in the legislation “are designed to work together to help create an environment that supports or empowers people to make healthier choices in relation to their alcohol consumption”.

Brewers, however, have claimed that the advertising restrictions proposed will effectively freeze them out from the majority of all outdoor advertising space in major cities in Ireland.

The Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI) has a twofold argument, saying that the restrictions are “disproportionate” and that they won’t work.

shutterstock_355582886 Source: Shutterstock/Alexandru Nika

The body, which represents brewers, distillers, brand owners and distributors in Ireland, has also warned that the move will have negative consequences across a variety of sectors, claiming the watershed rule will have “huge financial implications for domestic broadcasters” in terms of revenue.

ABFI Director Ross Mac Mathúna said: “We would like to see the sensible implementation of the Bill, however the proposed measures are not fit for purpose and will result in unintended consequences.”

Their figures claim that, of the 8261 advertising spots in Greater Dublin, Cork and Limerick, only 969 of these (11.7%) would be available to book for alcohol advertising under the provisions of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.

A spokesperson for Alcohol Action Ireland criticised a lack of evidence to substantiate this claim that 88% of outdoor advertisement space would be made unavailable under the new system.

They also told TheJournal.ie that the alcohol industry was not “primarily concerned with ‘unintended consequences’ of this legislation, but the intended consequence” which would ultimately aim for a reduction in alcohol consumption.

Alcohol marketing and children

The ABFI says that the restrictions on advertising will have little benefit on the issue of underage drinking.

Countries such as France have banned advertising at sporting events and have implemented content restrictions on other alcohol-related advertising, but the ABFI argues that research on underage drinking in France show that these measures will not work in Ireland.

Data published in 2013 did show that there was an increase in the number of underage drinkers consuming alcohol regularly in France, but this is not directly linked to advertising.

Mac Mathúna said: “We are concerned about the proposed advertising restrictions given the lack of clear evidence that these measures will address the misuse of alcohol.

Underage consumption [in Ireland] is declining.

According to the recent ESPAD survey – a European-wide survey on alcohol use among teenagers – Ireland was found to be below average in terms of alcohol use in a number of categories, including regular consumption.

One category, however, where Ireland did not perform so well in terms of how many teenagers had been drunk in the previous 30 days, and the average alcohol intake on the last day that they drank.

espad Percentage of prevalence, Irish teenagers versus European average Source: ESPAD

The Alcohol Action Ireland spokesperson said: “Children are continuously exposed to positive, risk-free images of alcohol and its use, which are far removed from the reality of the situation.

Restricting advertisements for alcohol products to content about the nature of those products will mean that advertisements will be less likely to glamourise alcohol or make it appealing to children.

“Due to weak systems of industry self-regulation, children in Ireland are currently very poorly protected from these sophisticated and powerful influences on their expectations and behaviour in relation to alcohol.”

According to research carried out at the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway, over 90% of children reported that they were exposed to traditional, or offline, alcohol advertisements in the week prior to the study being carried out.

Dr Michal Molcho at NUI Galway said: “Given that these findings echo previous studies, coupled with the vulnerability of young people to alcohol, there is a clear need for immediate action on alcohol marketing regulation.”

The ABFI, however, said: ”The drinks industry in Ireland abides, in the strictest manner, to all codes relating to advertising and marketing.”

Lobbying

As amendments to the legislation were under review by members of the Seanad, several came forward to air their frustrations on the amount of lobbying taking place from industry on the matter.

Independent Senator Frances Black told the House in November: “Is the Leader aware of the amount of lobbying by the alcohol industry on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill? I am shocked by the amount of lobbying.

I have seen it with my own eyes. I saw seven people from the industry standing around one Deputy in the coffee dock some days ago and I was absolutely horrified.

frances black Independent Senator Frances Black Source: Niall Carson PA Archive/PA Images

“We have to stop listening to the industries whose representatives are in here fighting against saving lives.”

Senator David Norris also drew attention to the issue. He said: “Multinational corporations have been carrying out extensive lobbying of Members of this House. Sometimes, they are clever in how they conceal their origins referring to ‘responsible drinkers’ and all of that rubbish.

No one believes it. They have stopped lobbying me because I used to send material back and tell them that I did not believe them.

Also speaking in the Seanad on the matter, Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone expressed her fears that the advertising industry would begin to lobby members to reduce to the effect the bill will have.

She said: “My concern is that the advertising industry will start to lobby us to reduce the effect the Bill will have on its industry. The objective of the advertising measures contained in the Bill is to protect young people from exposure to alcohol marketing.

If there is to be any reduction or removal of measures in the legislation, I hope it will not be a precedent for other industries to start lobbying us. I believe this is only the start of it.
Section 20

By law, lobbyists are required to register and disclose who they are lobbying and what they are lobbying them about.

The register lists details of who has been lobbying politicians on a range of issues and, in the case of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, it is section 20 that has led to a great number of lobbying attempts.

Section 20 concerns the “structural separation” of alcohol products for sale in shops and supermarkets.

In practice, it will mean the erection of a physical barrier to separate alcohol from other products in shops.

On the register of lobbyists, it can be seen that shop owners have been keen to get this part of the Bill amended in particular.

Blue Silver Merchants ULC, trading as McInerney’s SuperValu Loughrea, published details on 17 January that they had phone three local TDs on the issue.

The intended results of this lobbying was to “avoid the expenditure of €45,000 in our store in order to comply with proposed legislative changes to prevent alcohol from being visible to our customers”.

A Centra store in Sligo held a meeting with three local TDs seeking the “elimination of the requirement for structural separation”.

Other recorded instances of lobbying politicians on this piece of the legislation can be found here, here, and here.

This issue almost caused a rift between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance in November.

The Bill instructs that alcohol must be separated from the other products on sale in the shop by a physical barrier, so that alcohol products and advertising are not readily visible to members of the public.

Plans to force small retailers and corner shop owners to segregate alcohol products was a “step too far”, said the Independent Alliance.

Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works Sean Canney described the section of the bill as “a retrograde step” and said it is simply “inoperable”.

“Segregation like this will add nothing to the control of drinking. Drinking is an issue in this country and education about alcohol needs to start in the school.

“I am fearful of the fact that this legislation could drive drink further underground and make drink an even less sociable pastime,” he said.

Unlike other disagreements the Independent Alliance has had with Fine Gael in the past, this time they might actually have some support from government backbenchers.

Corcoran-Kennedy briefed her party colleagues on the new bill at the parliamentary party meeting at a November meeting, where concerns were raised were also raised by Fine Gael TDs about the impacts it will have on small corner shops.

At a previous parliamentary party meeting in October, there was a heated discussion about the new bill, with rural TDs raising the same concerns as members of the Independent Alliance.

Many stated it would be a non-runner for their constituents.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the issue of minimum pricing.

Read: ‘His eyes were rolling in his head and there was froth coming out of his mouth’

Read: New laws on the way to curb the spread of pubs and off licences

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