Irish Independent Op-Ed: Difficult choices will have to be made if we want to tackle our drink problem

The danger associated with excessive alcohol consumption is under the public spotlight again following at least one tragic death linked to the ‘neknomination’ craze; a crush outside a ‘Messy Mondays’ event at a Dublin night club, and an incident involving drink and drugs at a concert in Belfast on Thursday night. Understandably, the reaction has been one of sadness, concern, and condemnation of our pervasive drink culture.

Most of us agree that as a society we have a serious problem with alcohol misuse. Whether it’s condemnation of the ‘neknomination’ phenomenon, or a backlash against Arthur’s Day, we express our periodic exasperation, and sometimes fury, at the visible effects of excessive drinking. Not unreasonably, we couple this with a demand that Government should do “something” to address it.

Delivering the kind of action that will have real impact requires more than a periodic outcry. It calls for public support and the implementation of policy choices that some will find difficult, or even objectionable. There is no easy way here.

In Ireland, our collective relationship with alcohol is complex, to say the least. It is an almost indispensible social lubricant. One of our alcohol brands has become practically synonymous with our national identity, to the extent that foreign dignitaries are greeted with the iconic pint when they visit us here.

Yet we have daily reminders of the shocking harms caused by alcohol misuse, including serious illness and premature death.

The Government reflects broader society, and so it is inevitable that any policy response – or non-response – will be influenced by the ambivalent attitudes and behaviour of the public towards alcohol. And the Government also has to contend with a myriad of interests groups, including commercial concerns and significant employers, whose interests sometimes are in direct conflict with the objective of reducing the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Perhaps this is why it has taken so long for the Government to even begin the process of legislating on alcohol as a public health issue.

But this is what we have now done.

A package of measures, including provision for minimum pricing (to deal with very cheap alcohol), restrictions on marketing and advertising, regulations on labelling and health warnings, and a host of other instruments will be contained in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill now being drafted by the Department of Health.

Some of these measures will be controversial, and will be opposed by the drinks industry, who are of course entitled to express their views.

But given the mounting pressure for action to curb excessive drinking, I believe the public will support what we are trying to achieve – so that calls for “something” to be done can now be translated into action.

Minimum unit pricing targets drink that is cheap in price, but high in alcohol content. It won’t raise the price of every alcohol product, but dirt-cheap spirits and beer being sold at pocket-money prices would become a thing of the past.

Alcohol products will in future have to be displayed in a separate area to other products in mixed retail stores and supermarkets, making them less visible to children. We will cover this initially through a statutory code rather than through the current voluntary approach.

All alcoholic drink containers and promotional materials will have to carry compulsory health warnings as well as their calorie count. There will also be stricter regulation of the marketing and advertising of alcohol.

We do not have a final decision yet on the proposal to phase out alcohol sponsorship of major sporting events. I remain firmly convinced that this should be done, even allowing a relatively lengthy lead-in period to help sporting bodies to find new sources of funding and sponsorship.

My experience dealing with colleagues has been that each and every one of them is committed to addressing this problem. I do not criticise any minister for seeking to protect an area of activity – whether it is sport, the arts, broadcasting, newspapers, or retail. And there is an overriding concern which we all share to maintain and increase employment in our battered economy.

But choices will have to be made. As I have already argued, there is no easy way. The undoubted positive effects of many of the measures we are proposing will have negative effects on some sectors. We should certainly seek to mitigate these effects as much as we can. But we will need the courage to press ahead, because it is the right thing to do.

Otherwise we are left with the episodic outcry, the plaintive call for action, and – saddest of all – the shattered lives of so many of our friends, family members, and communities.

This article appeared in the Irish Independent on Saturday, February 8th 2014.