Speech on the Report by the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications on Sponsorship of Sports by the Alcohol Drinks Industry.
I welcome the opportunity afforded today by the presentation of this Report to address the issue of alcohol misuse, and to expand on the Government’s plans to address this problem. I thank the members of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications for their work on the issue of Sponsorship of Sport by the Alcohol Drinks Industry, and for their valuable contribution to the debate.
I welcome the acceptance by the committee that actions must be taken to address the harm caused to individuals, and to the broader Irish society by the misuse of alcohol.
The committee was rightly cognisant of the devastating effects on communities and families brought about by the misuse of alcohol; committee members were unanimous in their view that measures were required to be taken in order to deal with the problems caused by harmful alcohol consumption; and they noted that the misuse of alcohol in general is increasingly being identified in the younger age cohort.
Ceann Comhairle there is much common ground between the members of the committee, my department, and the government on this pervasive problem – one that causes enormous harm and damage to the lives of children, families and communities.
I should say at the outset that in line with the Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy, I remain convinced that we must end the unhealthy association that currently exists between sports and alcohol through sponsorship. I understand the committee’s perspective on this, in that they see such a ban rather as ‘a worthwhile aspiration’. However, I would respectfully maintain the view that ending sponsorship is an important element – and I accept that it is only one element – of a combination of policy instruments we need to adopt if we are to make real progress in this area.
It is our view in the Department of Health that a close linkage between sport and alcohol undermines the very real and tangible benefits our society gains from sport.
Having said that, it is understandable of course that, given its remit, the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications would address this issue primarily from the perspective of sports organizations and sport itself, [see page 7] and this is perfectly legitimate. But I would urge the House and indeed the broader public to look at the issue in the round, and to give the highest possible priority and consideration to public health, which indeed is the perspective adopted by Government in its recent approval of the drafting of the first-ever Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.
It has been contended, Ceann Comhairle, that there is a “lack of evidence” to show that a ban on sponsorship would be effective in reducing alcohol consumption among young people. There are in fact numerous peer reviewed research reports and studies, conducted both domestically and internationally, that firmly demonstrate the effectiveness of integrated alcohol marketing communication strategies in which brand sponsorship is a key component. I am happy to make these studies and references available to colleagues at any stage. These strategies are particularly effective in the acquisition and retention of new market audiences especially amongst the younger age cohort. Firm conclusions can be made from the research evidence that, for example
- The age entry for first alcohol use amongst Irish children has fallen from 15 to 14 years old.
- Marketing communications are highly effective in shaping attitudes, perceptions and expectancies amongst Irish youth.
- Exposure to alcohol marketing increases the likelihood that teenagers drink alcohol, and that they start drinking at an earlier age, and in a more harmful manner
- Alcohol branded sports sponsorship has a high recognition amongst young people.
- Exposure to alcohol marketing communications is cumulative and normalizes the consumption, and harmful use of, alcohol.
However, no-one can seriously expect to obtain, as it were, direct “cause and effect” evidence in this arena. Such a level of “proof” is simply not attainable, given that the behavioral impact of marketing communications, and specifically branded sponsorship, is multilayered and quite complex. It is clear, however, that integrated marketing strategies constitute a highly developed business tactic effectively deployed by alcohol companies to retain, develop and increase product sales, especially in younger people.
Sports sponsorship programmes by alcohol brands is now a key component of integrated marketing strategies. They enable alcohol marketers to reach and influence underage, future consumers in a way that advances brand relationships way beyond the traditional ‘above the line’ channels such as television and radio.
Sports clubs encourage children and teenagers to see that sporting performance and good health are incompatible with heavy alcohol consumption.
This latter point is important: government recognises the vital contribution of sports bodies in promoting and increasing participation rates in sport. This is why the three major national sporting bodies alone receive significant public monies, through the Irish Sports Council, for this specific purpose – approx. €9m in 2011 (FA1 €3.158m, GAA €3.004m, IRFU €2.771m).
But yet at the same time children’s sporting heroes are fashioned in alcohol-branded sports gear; and the stadiums where they play, or the backdrops against which they are interviewed, are emblazoned with the branding of alcohol drinks.
You have to ask – what message are we intending our children and teenagers to receive?
The escalation of costs associated with the further professionalisation of sport was noted, along with other funding factors referred to in the committee’s report.
However while I, no less than anyone else, appreciate the emotional attachment we all hold to national sporting success, can we reasonably say that the needs of protecting public health are of lesser importance than the further professionalization, or the international successes of our sporting codes?
Evidence from domestic and international research demonstrates the effectiveness of integrated marketing strategies, and specifically where brand sponsorship is a key component.
IEG, one of the world’s leading authorities on measuring high performance sponsorship programs defines effectiveness in measured returns, behavior changes, results of emotional connections and psychological connectedness. These are applications of a highly sophisticated methodology where globally expenditure on sponsorship has reached $44 billion (2009). In Ireland, a specialist sports sponsorship firm, Halpin Sport, has estimated the Irish market for total sports sponsorship at €96million (2011). Equally it confirms for its potential clients that “sports sponsorship offers the perfect platform for companies to engage and interact with a team’s followers … It has the power to connect at a deep emotional level with fans and change the way they feel about products and brands.
These known outcomes I believe echo the committee’s acknowledgment that the sponsorship of sports by alcohol brands is far from ideal. This recognition of an uncomfortable alliance perhaps shaped the recommendation of the Committee that a fixed percentage of all sponsorship received by every organisation from the alcohol drinks industry should be ring-fenced, and paid into a central fund for alcohol and substance abuse prevention programmes. This is an interesting proposal that bears further scrutiny.
Ultimately, the government has decided to put in place a process to deal with the differing perspectives that exist on sports sponsorship by alcohol companies. This process will enable all views to be examined and analysed and I look forward to working with the Members of this House, and the Committee, on this important debate and reaching positive solutions.
As the House will be aware, the government has approved the drafting of a Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, which details a package of measures to address this problem. This landmark initiative has come about following much consultation and dialogue between Government Ministers and departments. It is the first time the misuse of alcohol has been addressed as a public health issue.
The Irish public share the concern of the health authorities on this issue. Research commissioned by my Department while preparing these measures showed that 78% of the public think that the Government has a responsibility to implement public health measures to address high alcohol consumption.
The key measure approved by the Government is the drafting of health-oriented legislation on alcohol – to be called the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. In summary this Bill will provide for:
- Minimum unit pricing for retailing of alcohol products;
- regulation of marketing and advertising of alcohol in the media domains of TV and radio, cinemas, outdoor and print – as well as the content of such advertisements;
- regulation of sports sponsorship, specifically to place an existing voluntary code that governs sports sponsorship on a statutory footing;
- separation of alcohol from other products;
- enforcement powers for Environmental Health Officers in relation to alcohol;
- Health labelling of alcohol products.
Minimum Unit Pricing for alcohol is one of the anchors of this package, and taken in conjunction with the other measures we are announcing, has the potential to have a real impact on the harmful and hazardous consumption of alcohol.
Minimum Unit Pricing targets alcohol that is cheap relative to its strength. It is one of the instruments to be used to tackle the very low cost at which alcohol is sold in the off-trade sector – particularly in supermarkets.
I said at the launch of this initiative that Minimum Unit Pricing does not raise the price of every alcohol product; I wish to emphasize this again. The pint in the pub or the bottle of premium whiskey are already well above any price that would be set as a minimum price for their alcohol content. Almost all drinks in the pub are already sold well above any likely minimum price, so these drinks are unlikely to be affected.
What the Government wants is for everyone to feel the economic and social benefits of addressing alcohol misuse; we want our citizens to experience these benefits through healthier, happier, safer families and communities.
We know that there’s a profusion of alcohol products in our stores. We see the in-your-face presence that these alcohol products now hold in our supermarkets and convenience stores. In this regard, I’m particularly pleased that the Departments of Justice and Equality and Health have agreed a 3-step approach to provide for the structured separation of alcohol from other products in mixed trading outlets.
The first step involves replacing the current voluntary code with a statutory code under Section 17 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011. This section empowers the Minister to establish a new code that sets standards for display, sale, supply, advertising, promotion and marketing of alcohol.
Secondly, the new Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will empower Environmental Health Officers to enforce structural separation provisions contained within Section 9 in the event that its commencement is required.
And thirdly, after 2 years both Departments will review the effectiveness of the new statutory code in achieving the separation of alcohol from other products, and control of access. The results and findings of this review will inform government’s decision on whether or not to proceed to commence Section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008.
I have already spoken about the many research reports and studies, both domestically and internationally, that demonstrate the effectiveness of marketing communication strategies in sustaining and recruiting new customers for alcohol products – especially younger people. It is clear that integrated marketing strategies constitute a highly developed business tactic effectively deployed by alcohol companies to retain, develop and increase product sales.
The Substance Misuse Steering Group made recommendations about dealing with the advertising of alcohol and these will now be developed in our forthcoming Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.
Alcohol ads on TV and radio will be restricted to evening hours, and my department will be working closely with the Dept of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to introduce this incrementally by 2016, through the statutory codes of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Statutory codes of practice are also envisaged for the print media, cinemas, and to cover the manner in which alcohol is portrayed in advertisements.
The legislation will also cover billboard and other outdoor advertising media. Its purpose will be to restrict such advertising from 2018, with a statutory code of practice to govern it in the interim. We will be working with other relevant government departments on identifying the form, frequency and prevalence of outdoor media advertising that will come within the scope of these statutory restrictions.
On the question of sponsorship of sports by alcohol companies, the government decided that the existing voluntary code of practice governing sports sponsorship will be given statutory status. Meanwhile, a working group chaired by the Dept of An Taoiseach will report within 12 months on the implications of regulating sponsorship by alcohol companies of major sporting events.
New statutory provisions will be introduced on the labelling of alcohol products. This is an important area for consumer information, and will also cover warnings concerning the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.
The Bill will give statutory powers to the Environmental Health Officers of the HSE to:
- inspect and report on the pricing of alcohol beverages in line with the minimum unit pricing provisions;
- enforce existing legislation prohibiting or restricting the advertising, promotion, sale or supply of alcohol at reduced prices or free of charge.; and
- Enforce the structural separation of alcohol from other products which is provided in legislation that has not yet been commenced.
Furthermore, the Government has agreed that future public health messaging on alcohol will be based on grams of alcohol rather than a standard number of drinks; and that the new low-risk drinking guidelines for men and women should be 168 grams – equivalent to 17 standard drinks – and 112 grams – equivalent to 11 standard drinks – for men and women respectively.
We know about the adverse effects of alcohol consumption on children, families and communities. It is a constant theme of public debate and comment. Meanwhile, there has been a strong public affairs campaign waged against a ban on sports sponsorship by alcohol companies. It is claimed – as the Joint Committee reports – that the link between sports sponsorship by alcohol companies and consumption of alcohol is not proven. This is perplexing, given the evidence that is available, and also the significant levels of monies committed to alcohol brand sponsorship campaigns.
We now have government approval now a process to deal with this challenging aspect of tackling alcohol misuse. Meanwhile, we must advance the series of measures already approved. The nature of the challenge we are addressing to reduce Ireland’s overall consumption of alcohol requires a genuine public health response. I believe this will happen and that this landmark initiative will gain the support of the broader community and society.