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'Lobbyists are lining up to kill the Alcohol Bill'

Senator Frances Black finds it ‘disheartening’ to watch legislation picked apart that she believes will protect families all over Ireland.

Frances Black Senator and CEO, RISE Foundation

I READ WITH great interest the article by Patricia Callan published on TheJournal.ie Voices section this week.

It’s important to recognise this for part of what I believe is a concerted effort by the industry to kill a bill designed to tackle Ireland’s harmful relationship with alcohol. The author is the Director of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI), and has a vested interest in maintaining or increasing alcohol consumption in Ireland. The industry’s concern here is profit, not public health.

At the moment, the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is slowly working through the Oireachtas. It contains sensible, evidence-based measures, dealing primarily with health labelling, availability, pricing, and advertising. This bill would not move mountains, but it would be a step in the right direction.

It’s driven by the HSE, and backed by a broad range of doctors, medical professionals, researchers, community groups and charities. This includes the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, the Irish Cancer Society, the Irish Heart Foundation, the National Youth Council of Ireland, the ISPCC, Samaritans, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the National Suicide Research Foundation, the Union of Students in Ireland, the Rape Crisis Network, and many others.

In opposition is an army of well-funded industry lobbyists. It’s been disheartening to watch them try to pick this bill apart, piece by piece. The latest is a cynical attempt to downplay the impact of advertising and to suggest that by limiting it, the arts in Ireland will suffer.

The arts in Ireland should not belong to the alcohol industry

I should say that I also have a vested interest here, both as a performing artist and as founder and CEO of the RISE Foundation, where I have seen the devastation caused to children and families first-hand. I still see RISE clients every week alongside my work here in Leinster House.

As an artist, I also want to be clear: the arts in Ireland should not belong to ABFI. The industry can threaten to withdraw money, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the savings the state can make by reducing the enormous alcohol-related harm in Ireland.

Here are some facts:

  • Three people die every day due to alcohol-related illness
  • 1,500 hospital beds are taken up every night due to alcohol-related illness
  • Two independent reviews from the Health Research Board and the HSE put the cost to the State as €1.5-2.3bn per year
  • There is enormous pressure on mental health services due to alcohol abuse

The lobbyists paid to kill this bill seem to ignore these figures. While doctors and health officials tell us how serious it is, the industry takes every chance to state the opposite.

Extensive review of child neglect

The impact of pervasive advertising is particular high on children. The Committee of the European Alcohol and Health Forum would disagree with Ms Callan, concluding that “alcohol marketing, including advertising, sponsorship and other forms of promotion, increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol, and drink more if they are already using alcohol”.

This is mirrored by repeated pleas by Dr Geoffrey Shannon, Government Special Rapporteur on Child Protection. In his extensive review of child neglect launched last month, he was unequivocal on the key role that alcohol is playing in child abuse cases.

He said:

The biggest challenge facing society is the adverse consequences for the welfare of many children posed by alcohol. Drug and alcohol abuse are a key feature of this report, and have a very damaging effect on children. The failure by society to address alcohol is a fundamental problem, places insurmountable problems on the child protection system, so it’s not just about Tusla or the Gardai. It’s about society, and our ambivalence to alcohol and substance misuse.

After working with families dealing with alcohol harm for years, I came to Leinster House to carry this message. But as legislators, when we try to meaningfully address the problem, the industry is there to obstruct.

As a result, the Bill has been languishing for two years. Despite the fact that he has repeatedly stated his support, and introduced the Bill himself when Minister for Health, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dail this week that it’s been delayed again. It’s just not good enough.

In the meantime, industry lobbyists won’t relent. As a society we need to consider our response and our relationship with alcohol – to be willing to put the health of the many before the wealth of the few.

Frances Black is a senator and CEO of the RISE Foundation, which supports families whose members have addiction issues.

Patricia Callan: ‘From Puck Fair to the Cork Jazz, our festivals are dependent on the drinks industry’>

Dr Bobby Smyth: ‘Our children’s television viewing is bombarded by the thrills and spills of alcohol’>

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About the author:

Frances Black  / Senator and CEO, RISE Foundation

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