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Make no mistake – the drinks industry cares about sales, not you

It is impossible for a body bought and paid for by the drinks industry to honestly communicate the effects of alcohol on the individual.

IMAGINE A WORLD without alcohol sponsorship of sport and without drinks ads on TV. You’re imagining France, the country with a binge drinking rate one sixth that of Ireland. It’s a country where there is a genuinely sensible and mature approach to alcohol – and it’s a country, like Ireland, with a mix of statutory and non-statutory regulations for the alcohol industry.

To be certain, people drink in France – there is alcoholism there, there are serious issues for public health in France, just like in other societies where alcohol is available – but in France, the trend is downward and binge drinking isn’t, in general, a group activity where getting drunk is the objective.

The drinks industry is ruthlessly efficient and deeply rational – like any multi-billion euro industry, it knows how to get people to drink more, how to grow a market and how to cultivate the next generation of drinkers, to put them on the value addition conveyor belt.

A staggering diversity of lifestyle messages and marketing approaches

The economics of drinking is strikingly obvious, once you’ve thought about it. A massive diversity of products at a massively wide range of prices, with a staggering diversity of lifestyle messages and marketing approaches to segment and divide the market. We start with the young drinkers, who don’t have a whole lot of money – for young men there’s the thin aluminium can beers which promise european sophistication and precious metals. For the ladies there are the lighter alcopops, the breezers and coolers, which promise to instantly put one into a frock and laugh uncontrollably into the night with your equally attractive mid-twenties friends. They offer Sex and the City, often with a three-for-two offer.

The next stage in the process is to get the drinker into the bottled beers and shift the ladies towards the Irish Creams or short-and-mixer. In the summer, everyone is encouraged to dedicate time to quenching the thirst with ciders – and to move on from there. At each life stage there is a higher-value drink product targeted at our aspirations and an encouragement to get some of the good life – and for every other moment there’s a pint glass filled with stout… possibly with a small shot of whichever whiskey needs a bit of a push at the moment, just to take the chill off.

Saving us from ourselves 

Make no bones about it – the drinks industry is not a ‘take us or leave us’ industry meekly offering a product to a free-willed population. Even when the industry seeks to pretend it wants to care for us, it’s not the gargle from which we need to be saved – it’s our wild, senseless self, our out-of-control nature, which, we are expected to believe, pains the drinks industry as much as it pains us.

They remind us to enjoy their product sensibly (but do enjoy our product).

They remind us to tame our unpredictable, animal side with a trip to their website which helpfully reminds us that ‘enjoying a drink may be part of Irish culture…’ and, at the start of an article on the possible health benefits of cutting down on alcohol, states:  “Lots of people associate drinking with relaxation, socialising and having a good time. In moderate amounts, alcohol can add to the fun of an occasion and helps us feel relaxed.”

The drinks industry, dominated in Ireland by Diageo, needs young drinkers like it needs hops and barley – it cultivates drinkers as early as possible, but it cultivates partners and harvests goodwill as well.

It’s a pretence that the drinks industry cares 

USI took the view in 2013 that it could not escape the credibility gap occasioned by working with DrinkAware – that it is literally impossible for a body bought and paid for by the drinks industry to honestly communicate the effects of alcohol on the individual.

There is no doubt in my mind that the people who engage in are good people of goodwill, who want to see fewer negative outcomes from Ireland’s drinking culture. But the implication of working with the drinks industry is that of working for the drinks industry – whether you’re being paid to do it or not.

DrinkAware, and drinks industry campaigns like them are a fig leaf – a pretence that the drinks industry cares about anything other than sales and reputation.  People see these campaigns for what they are – they can’t work and they don’t work – for anyone but the people selling the booze.

Bio: Laura Harmon is the President of the Union of Students in Ireland. USI launched in December 2014, a national independent alcohol awareness campaign with funding from the HSE.
Twitter: @Harmonica26


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It was all lies – moderate drinking is not good for you

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