With Roisin Shortall’s resignation creating uncertainty around the government’s alcohol misuse strategy, Isobel Fergus explores the possible impact of the strategy

It’s no secret that many Irish people have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. As part of our national stereotype, alcohol has begun to define us as a people. The recent departure of Junior Minister for Health Roisin Shortall raises the question of whether the government strategy to crackdown on the misuse of alcohol will be delayed further.

The report released in February by the Steering Group has shed light on some alarming statistics. According to the report, alcohol was responsible for at least 88 deaths per month in 2008, and alcohol related illnesses cost the health sector €1.2 billion in 2007. However, in response to the report, the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI) released a minority report highlighting the 62,000 jobs the drinks industry supports throughout the country and the €2 billion it provides in taxation annually. In these harsh economic times, there is an ongoing battle between the revenue that the drinks industry supplies to the cash starved exchequer and the problems that alcohol misuse costs the state.

In just four years, Arthur’s Day has become the second St. Patrick’s Day bringing in huge revenue and big names. The event is a publican’s dream with Diageo promoting your local as one of the hot spots to celebrate the day. Some, however, may have taken the slogan ‘Paint the town black’ a little too far, with complaints among hospitals and Gardaí of having to deal with the spillover effects from the event. The effects of a masterful advertising campaign on levels of consumption are clear.

Events such as this may be restricted as some of the recommendations featured in the report are the introduction of minimum pricing, regulations on alcohol advertising and the phasing out of alcohol sponsorship. Community and Health Officer for the GAA Colin Reagan says that: “They have to be looked upon as a collective stance and it does need a multi-level approach like that, to have an impact on a culture which is a very difficult thing to change. So I think any policy that has to be implemented can’t just be targeted at one sector but looked at the population as a whole and I think the tendency of the adult population of Ireland to simply look at problem drinking as an issue that is relevant only to young people. I think is a case of maybe not facing up to the full facts.”

Critics of the report argue that it does not tackle the misuse of alcohol but merely alcohol consumption in general. According to the minority report released by the ABFI, alcohol consumption has fallen 17% in the last decade. Acting Director of the ABFI Jean Doyle points out: “We’re not drinking any more than a lot of other countries in Europe. It’s just that we tend in our drinking to drink more on the one occasion and that is a problem and it’s a health problem. We are coming down to mid-levels but it’s how we’re drinking.”

One of the most controversial elements of the report is the phasing out of sponsorship by the alcohol industry of sports and other large public events by 2016. Concerns have been voiced about this aspect happening too quickly and the effects it would have on sports funding.

“I think that would be really a very negative move.” Says Doyle, “The consequences of this could be you would penalise the Irish sports organisations, festival events, community events, all of that and it won’t actually do anything especially if you are looking at any type of international, say, sporting fixture. I think it could certainly as well cut off a very important source of funding,”

According to Reagan: “Over the last number of years, the GAA would have taken a number of steps in relation to its engagement with alcohol. It obviously has a long and successful partnership with Guinness as sponsors of the Hurling Championship. A number of years ago, Guinness was moved as being the title sponsor to just one of three in the hurling championship alone and one of nearly 14 sponsors that the association has across all league and championship competitions. So it has already removed a direct relationship with Guinness. Beyond just a sponsorship model, the association has put in place, the ASAP Program, the alcohol and substance abuse prevention program, since 2006 it’s been up and running within the GAA and it’s a joint initiative with the HSE.”

Former Minister McDowell’s initiative to tackle binge drinking recommended licenses for European style café-bars but the idea never proceeded due to a number of objections. However, cheap drink has now made drinking at home one of the biggest problems in Irish drinking habits. Lack of a controlled drinking environment has made it more difficult to realise the volume of alcohol people are consuming.

According to Reagan: “I think a lot of commentators in the area of alcohol education prevention and response would be happy to see it return to the traditional model of consumption in a licensed premises where measures are defined, people know exactly what they are drinking, it’s done in a more social environment over perhaps a longer period of time.”

Only time will tell whether the new Minister, Alex White will remain as determined as his predecessor to see the bill through. Most are not denying that Irish people need to change the way they approach their celebrations but it remains to be seen whether stricter measures can really change the role alcohol plays in Irish society.