Reeling in the years 2012

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

IF you haven’t already seen it, I’d recommend you download and read The misuse of alcohol and other drugs, a report released this week by the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children.

As the name suggests, it has a wide focus. Among its recommendations are stricter controls on prescription drugs, and funding for drug and alcohol rehabilitation schemes. But as you’d expect from a wine blogger, my main focus is on the parts of the report dealing with alcohol.

Alcohol consumption in Ireland has gone up by 231% since 1960. Source: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx

Some of the recommendations have hit the headlines but it’s really worth reading the full report as it delivers a more rounded sense of the submissions the committee heard, lays out some key evidence, provides useful graphics which can help our understanding of the issues, and contains comprehensive references/links to further relevant stats, audio etc.

Retailers

One of the most controversial recommendations (11) suggests the government should consider an “outright ban on the sale of alcohol in certain outlets”.

But the more specific proposal in this regard is (10) for legislation to “ban the presentation and sale of alcoholic products alongside groceries, confectionary and fuel”.

This is the ‘garages-and-supermarkets’ bit you may have heard about in the news.

While on the face of it, this may look like an enormously radical change, it’s little more than a reversion to the situation that prevailed a few decades ago. The recommendation doesn’t suggest firms operating supermarkets shouldn’t run off-licences, and in practical terms it could mean little more than alcohol being hived off into an area separate from the groceries in supermarkets. This is pretty reasonable really, giving alcohol its proper place as a speciality rather than normalised as a shopping trolley staple.

However I think the 12th recommendation — “that the Government prohibit the practice of retail deliveries of alcoholic products directly to consumers’ homes” — may be a mistake. I believe it’s inspired at least in part by the shocking images from a sting operation in August 2010 on RTÉ’s Prime Time.

That film showed how four off-licences and two supermarkets had sent round alcohol to people who certainly looked like under-18s without checking for identification. The practice is also being targeted by Garda undercover sting operations.

However it’s important to distinguish between such a dial-up booze taxi and the activities of online stores occasionally mentioned in this column which take orders by credit or debit card and deliver wine and beer days later. I see little connection between the online wine stores mentioned on this blog and the booze taxi scandal. Is this because those online wine shops appeal to middle-class folk like me? Captured by the posh? Moi? Don’t think so. No, really. No, it’s because factors including price and the time lag between order and delivery are likely to make them far less appealing to underage drinkers. I’m not convinced anything would be achieved by banning them that wouldn’t be done better by ensuring they’re regulated.

A majority of the committee commended the government’s plan to indroduce minimum pricing, with a minority proposing tax increases, the proceeds to be ring-fenced for alcohol addiction services. The committee also backed a recommendation by the chairman Jerry Buttimer TD to end VAT refunds on below-cost sales. It came as a surprise to many including me that the state was, I presume unintentionally, subsidising some retailers’ sales.

The Nanny State

Inevitably, some of the committee’s recommendations, and the outlook expressed here, will be ridiculed as advocating ‘the nanny state’: folks being coddled and controlled by big brother. Well fine. Let’s look at the world from that perspective…

The Nanny Sector

Instead of the nanny state we have the nanny sector. The retail and drinks lobbies have persuaded the state to privatise much of its policy on how alcohol is advertised and sold, along with winning concessions on matters such as store size and opening hours. And then there’s the advertising and sponsorship. The ‘nannying’ we get from state bodies such as safefood.ie shrinks to infinitesimal dimensions when compared with the wall of communication funded by the powerful, largely self-regulated, alcohol industry. It’s been building its brands by advertising to impressionable young people. For many children and teens, some of the most exciting, engaging experiences are coming to them with alcohol stapled on.  The afternoon movies over Christmas on UTV were sponsored by an alcoholic cider. Matches at the most recent soccer World Cup were bookended by comedy sketches advertising a beer. The very name of Europe’s premier rugby competition is a brand of beer.

Here’s the committee’s recommendation (4)

that the Government explore the option of a ban on all retail advertising relating to the discounting of alcoholic products, a ban on the advertisement of alcoholic products on television before 9PM, and any advertisement of alcohol products on social networking websites (these bans to be given legislative standing).

In what way is this nannying? What will be missing from your life if you see fewer advertisements for drink?

If such advertising weren’t so powerful, they wouldn’t be spending so much money on it. Young people also can’t help but notice the ubiquitous availability of alcohol as part of the weekly shop — which helps normalise drink as a somehow inevitable part of grown-up life.

What happens next?

The report is now being considered by junior Health Minister Roisin Shortall. But she doesn’t get to sit on the couch and just read the report. Not by a long chalk. Don’t forget that various interested parties will be lobbying hard right now, now that change is in the air. The obvious lobbying battle line (alcohol-industry-versus-regulation) is likely to be blurred, and the hardest skirmishes may well be fought by the various sectors of that industry trying to ensure they don’t lose advantage to the others. From their persepective, it’s all about access to markets. The one justification you won’t hear for such opposition is ‘because we profit from it’.

If I knew how, I’d add a countdown clock to this blog. It’d be interesting to see, starting from the publicaton date of the committee’s report, how many days til we read press reports about the disastrous impact alcohol regulation would have on employment.

If I do get round to it, my countdown clock will be accompanied by a wry visual metaphor– a picture of a telegraph operator protesting against the advent of fax, email, SMS and social media and their effect on jobs in that now obsolete medium. 

Here’s an idea: Public policy in areas fundamental to our wellbeing such as health, education, crime, justice and welfare – should never depend how many jobs are in it.

To anyone workng in the alcohol or retail fields who feels I am being glib about the prospects for your business or your job, please be assured that is not the case. Take it from someone working in the print media: things change. It may even be for the better. And anyway, the liberalised regime of retailing and promoting alcohol in this country right now is an recent invention. I don’t recall anyone in the 1990s protesting that their sons or daughters (perhaps you) couldn’t get a job in the alcohol industry just because the local garage wasn’t allowed stock it, or your local sports club wasn’t allowed promote it. One day soon we will regard the ubiquitous alcohol policy as a flash in the pan – as brief and unwise as prohibition.  

Read the industry submissions included in the report and you’ll get a sense of the lobbying. For instance, the National Off-Licence Association is promoting measures which will make it more difficult for supermarkets to mop up market share. The supermarkets in turn — who need no lessons in lobbying from anyone — will be fighting to water down any proposals which impact on their business. I presume  other interest groups such as online wine traders are getting together right now to contact the minister. And on it goes. And it’s in that melee that policy will be formed.

Reeling In The Years

I’m hardly alone in suffering occasional pangs of embarrassment-by-proxy while watching Reeling In The Years on TV. You get that sharp pain when you spot among the video clips from yesteryear the often bizarre clothing, regrettable haircuts, ashtrays in the maternity wards, and members of our ruling class in mullets and kipper ties talking up the property bubble. The blithe reassurances that, yes, it was a good idea to hand our power to churches and companies and forego democratic oversight and regulation of them. And there’s us voting for them. What the hell were we thinking?

Well here’s a handy hint. If you’re wondering about the wisdom of anything from a political policy to a haircut — now, today — just cast your mind forward and imagine how it would look featured ten or twenty years hence on Reeling In The Years 2012.

With regard to alcohol, I figure there’s a good chance we’ll be pretty embarrassed. The way we drink, and especially the way we allow the industry to behave in 2012, will look wildly inappropriate when we look back at it a decade hence. With the lucidity of hindsight, we’ll look back in wonder at the way we handed over power to a small few stakeholders in the alcohol and retail industries, and it’ll all look utterly mad. Here’s a snippet of what we’re likely to say…

“Self-regulation? Given the lessons we’d already learnt from what that kind of power did to the financial industry? What the hell were we thinking?”

We ought to commend this Oireachteas committee, and any governement with the courage to drive on with the broad thrust of its report. As I mentioned above, there will be powerful groups who make their money from alcohol lobbying the minister. So who’s missing from her table? Most of us, really — disenfranchised by our silence, left reading page after page of court reports about alcohol-related violence and accidents. Because right now. whether we like it or not, that’s what’s ‘normal’.

The advertising, availability and display of alcohol aren’t the only factors contributing to the abuse of alcohol. But they are among the few in our direct political control. That’s our power which, for a generaton, we’ve ceded to private firms for profit. If you welcome the partial rolling back of ubiquitous alcohol and alcohol advertising, and taking power back from sectoral interests, you might consider contacting your TD or the minister to give them your backing.  ♦

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

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