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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C
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What’s the problem with an “Out-of-Control” drinking campaign?

There has been controversy surrounding an anti-binge drinking campaign which, while having an independent Board, is funded by drinks industry giant Diageo.

NO ONE DOUBTS that Ireland has a drinking problem. Alcohol kills one thousand Irish people per year — that’s more people who have died during the lifetime of this government due to alcohol than the entire death toll of the Troubles.

Beyond deaths, alcohol has negatively impacted on hundreds of thousands of Irish families (including mine) and the HSE estimates the cost to society of €3.7 billion per year, including over one billion euros in additional healthcare costs, one billion euros in the cost of crime and over half a billion euros in road collisions.

At the same time, most Irish people (including me) enjoy having a drink in their local such that, even with these costs to society, few would argue that alcohol should be prohibited. Instead, our public health policy is focused on trying to reduce binge drinking. We try to do this through public education, taxation, restricting availability, and limiting exposure of our citizens (particularly those below the legal drinking age) to industry marketing.

A controversial new campaign 

Over the past few months, there has been controversy surrounding the Stop “Out-of-control” drinking campaign which, while having an independent Board, is funded by drinks industry giant Diageo and uses controversial lobby group Goddard Global in the UK as its secretariat.

There is certainly an argument to be made that the HSE have not delivered results from their public health education efforts and that a well-funded campaign run by people with integrity as well as campaigning experience and expertise may deliver better outcomes.

As for the industry involvement, the arguments are that the Board is completely independent and that you need industry involved in these debates to force them to commit publicly to changes and call out their hypocrisy if they later fail to live up to these commitments.

So what’s the problem with this campaign? I believe there are two inherent problems: 1) The track record of the drinks industry in public health efforts and 2) The €850 million impact on the drinks sector of any major public health success.

1. The track record of drinks industry in public health efforts

The drinks industry has a history of engaging with and frustrating public health efforts — examples of this include watering down recommendations (see the minority report by the drinks industry on the National Substance Misuse Strategy), slowing progress through legal action (Diageo is currently involved in a legal campaign against the Scottish government for bringing in pricing legislation similar to that currently being debated in Ireland), and promising self-regulation to avoid stricter legislation (the Irish government abandoned alcohol marketing legislation in 2003 after intense lobbying by the drinks industry).

2. The €850M impact on the drinks sector of any major public health success

About 38% of Ireland’s alcohol consumption is deemed by the HSE to be binge drinking (a third, fourth, fifth or more pint in a single sitting). The real number is likely to be higher as the study this analysis is based on found that survey participants are likely to have estimated their drinking habits at only 39% of the actual figures.

In a recent interview, a senior Diageo manager described this definition of binge drinking as “potentially unhelpful” in favour of the campaign’s ill-defined term of “out-of-control” drinking.

What would happen to the drinks sector if consumption was reduced by 38% along with the HSE’s definition? My best outside-in estimates are that the sector would lose €850 milllion in profits per year, becoming loss-making. (Full analysis, sources and assumptions here)

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When we weigh up these concerns, it is unsurprising that people who have been involved in public health for decades, frequently having their efforts frustrated by the industry, are not flocking to support the campaign.

Instead of the Stop Out-of-control Drinking Board members asking public health campaigners to hold judgement and get involved, I would humbly suggest that they shut down this campaign and invest their integrity, expertise and time in getting behind the efforts of the state and independent civil society efforts using evidence-based measures.

Niall Ó Tuathail is a Director at Mobile Clipboard, a Galway-based healthcare software design firm, following work at McKinsey & Company, where he specialised in health, non-profits and infrastructure.

Niall Ó Tuathail
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