'Our children's television viewing is bombarded by the thrills and spills of alcohol'

Our legislators need to take action and alter our harmful relationship with alcohol, writes Dr Bobby Smyth.

MANY PARENTS WHO have enjoyed raising their families may well have encountered a time when their child invented an imaginary friend. This is certainly not unusual and is widely regarded as a routine part of normal childhood development.

In Ireland however, and more generally, our children experience another, altogether different phenomenon, as they are now regularly accompanied by the omnipresence of alcohol brands.

Every day, our children must navigate their daily routine through avenues of alcohol advertising and promotion; their bus stops tell them to dream big, the bus is often wrapped in some humorous spin. When finished homework, their television viewing is bombarded with the thrills and spills of life with alcohol.

Trying to watch live sports, without being hit by some alcohol fuelled fantasy, is practically impossible. And that’s before they ever touch their phones or tablets.

Brands targeting the young

But perhaps all this is an unintended consequence? It is often said that half the money spent on advertising is wasted; the trouble is which half. Is it coincidental that alcohol brands increasingly are connected to the passions and values of youth culture?

When I sit to watch a match with my son, we will not be alone. Usually, we will have some alcohol brand there too. They too support our team; they too want to be part of our experience, share every moment of drama, every memory.

Of course, the alcohol brands are not interested in me, they will have long recognised that at this stage in my life, my brand loyalties are solid. But my eleven-year old son, well now that is rich territory.

It is now well established beyond all reasonable doubt that alcohol marketing does influence drink behaviour. In Ireland, last year over €50m was spend on advertising alcohol brands alone.

Marketing does influence our behaviour

A series of systematic reviews demonstrate that alcohol marketing encourages children to drink at an earlier age and in greater quantities than they otherwise would. The longitudinal study conducted by the Committee of the European Alcohol and Health Forum concluded 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.”

Inexcusably, sixty thousand children are going to commence their drinking careers in Ireland this year. The recently published Health Behaviour Survey of Children, while reflecting a welcome downward trend, reports that over 40% of 15-17 years old child reported having been drunk.

As adults who preside over this country, we ensure that they are acutely alcohol brand aware by maintaining the status quo of industry led, self-regulation on advertising and marketing of alcohol brands.

The fugly side of alcohol

Alcohol is arguably contributing to almost every important societal ill in Ireland. The annual cost of alcohol-related illness and harm to the Irish exchequer is €1.5bn, that is 3% of all public current expenditure; €2.35bn, assessing a wider set of cost implications to other aspects of impact to current public expenditure in Justice, Children, Social Protection.

Every day, while three people will die from alcohol related illnesses, 1,500 beds in our hospitals are occupied by patients with alcohol related problems. Alcohol is a related factor in half of all suicides. An estimated 283,866 work days were lost to alcohol related absenteeism in 2016.

Most recently, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, post publication of his audit into Child Protection, commented that his report: “demonstrates is how corrosive alcohol is, and what we see is that the biggest challenge facing society is the adverse consequences for the welfare of many children posed by alcohol.”

Legislators have the opportunity to act

For over 500 days the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill – a progressive piece of legislation designed to significantly and positively alter Ireland’s harmful relationship with alcohol – has languished in the Oireachtas and faced inordinate delay.

The Bill contains a range of measures designed to work together to reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland, so reducing alcohol related harm. It will protect children, families and communities from alcohol related harms and create an environment that supports a low risk approach to individual consumption.

It will address excessive consumption by establishing robust regulation on price, labelling, marketing and availability of alcohol products.

Specifically, the Bill contains a modest set of regulations on alcohol product marketing including the future content of advertisements, prohibition on advertising in certain places and restriction during certain events, which will establish a much needed, robust statutory regime.

Additionally, at an EU level, a revised AudioVisual Media Services Directive is making its way through the European labyrinth of approval and will shortly be debated in the Parliament.

Our legislators, those who we elect to govern and protect the citizenry, have a historic opportunity to act in a positive manner and make a real impact on the futures of our children by enacting this legislation. We now know the impact of decades of denial. We can have another decade of inertia or we can choose to lead. For the sake of our children, I believe we should do the latter.

Dr Bobby Smyth is a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, working full time with adolescents who have substance use problems for the past 14 years. He is also a Clinical Senior Lecturer with the Department of Public Health and Primary Care in Trinity College Dublin. He has been involved in research for 20 years and has published over 60 scientific papers in the field of addiction. Although he was never a particularly talented sportsman, he remains a keen follower of soccer and rugby in particular. He has two young sons, aged 10 and 12 years.

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