John O’Mahony on sporting sponsorship
In his role as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transport & Communications, John O’Mahony published the Report on Sponsorship of Sports by the Alcohol Drinks Industry. He reflects on his time spent compiling that report to Pat Nolan.
26 September 2013
At the first opportunity John O’Mahony TD, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transport & Communications, stresses that his Committee was specifically charged with drawing up a report on the likely effects of a ban on sports sponsorship – and only sports sponsorship – by alcohol companies as recommended by a previous alcohol & health committee The Steering Group on the National Substance Misuse Strategy.
But even to date, he’s not had direct discussions with Junior Minister Alex White, a keen advocate of such a ban.
“I had discussions with Minister Reilly” he says, “and sent a copy of the report to Ministers Reilly, White and Varadkar”.
His report didn’t favour a ban on sports sponsorship by alcohol companies. “The big issue here – and the only issue we dealt with – was that from a sponsorship point-of-view, there’d be a negative effect on sporting organisations if this sponsorship were withdrawn.
Unfortunately, he can’t ensure that the Report’s recommendations will be included in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.
“We don’t make policy decisions,” he explains, “Our role is to examine the issue and advise the Minister who’ll make those decisions around the cabinet table.
“Committees are cross-party so the report carries the weight of all parties. There would have been divergent views between individual members (which is alluded to within the report). We took the view of the majority.
The issue with alcohol
“It’s acknowledged by all that there’s an issue with alcohol consumption and binge-drinking,” he states, “It has to do with three areas: availability, pricing and marketing.
“Our report is mainly to do with the marketing side of it. Availability and price is something that I personally feel there’s a need to address.
“I’m of an age where drinking was done in the controlled atmosphere of pubs and clubs where, if somebody has taken too much drink, they’ll be refused or denied more drink.
“I see a situation today where there’s total availability of drink at every turn and in many cases at a very cheap rate – a major part of the problem that needs to be addressed.”
But the Government appears paralysed by the power of the multiples when it comes to deep price discounting of alcohol. The trade has long wondered what and when will the Government take action on this.
Not being a Minister he can’t say, but as a member of the Dail he does feel that this area needs to be addressed.
“It has become a very public issue in recent years in particular.”
Amongst the recommendations arising from the Report was one that stated, “A fixed percentage of all sponsorship received by each and every organisation (sporting, cultural, arts, music etc) from the alcohol drinks industry, should be ring-fenced and paid into a central fund to be administered by an appropriate body. That fund should be used exclusively for Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Programmes”.
But how will this work in practice?
“Obviously I’m not aware of exactly how it would work but where one has health issues costing us billions there needs to be some form of levy and I don’t envisage that that would be increasing the price of drink in the pubs as such,” he responds.
“I would think it would be something around the costs where the prices in many outlets are extremely low; there has to be a method found that provides the opportunity to ensure that those drinks will not be sold at such a low price and that the extra money that’s got there will be seen as part of a social responsibility levy.
“The minutiae of that remain to be worked out. There must be a way around increasing the low prices from some outlets…. People being able to buy a slab of lager for €15 needs to be reigned in. What’s happening at the minute is that a lot of drinking is done at home and as a result there’s very little control on measures and the amount of drink being consumed is totally out of proportion to what’s healthy.”
The importance of evidence-based argument
Before doing anything at all, argues the industry, shouldn’t evidence-based solutions to alcohol misuse be the only yardstick of change?
“There would be an argument here that some people say that the evidence is here already while others say it’s not,” he responds, “Facts don’t lie so I believe in an evidence-based approach too.
“All of us have opinions on many things and opinions don’t always reflect the truth.”
John O’Mahony has no problem with industry calls for a fresh approach on alcohol misuse but he believes that with the abuse of alcohol in certain areas of society in Ireland, the option of doing nothing is “not an option”.
In any argument no one side has a monopoly on the best tactics to be used, he believes, “So I think there’s a responsibility on legislators, on the drinks companies, the suppliers, to get this right. It hasn’t been got right up to now or we wouldn’t be talking about it here.”
Reflecting on the compiling of the report overall, what struck him most forcefully from the submissions was his shock at the effects of alcohol on the costs to our health system.
“Joe Barry and Bobby Smyth impressed me,” he says.
But MEAS had recommended to Government way back at the time of the abolition of the Groceries Order that alcohol products be excluded, he observes.
“They suggested that the ban on below-cost selling should never have been introduced, that alcohol products should have been exempt from the ban and that this would have solved in advance the problems that we have now.”
Overall he makes the valid point that a sponsorship ban should be about more than just sporting bodies.
“We’d recommend that arts and other events should not be exempted but treated in the same way,” he says, “We felt as a committee that it wasn’t correct or fair to single out just sport.
“The sporting organisations – and they made the point strongly – feel very much targeted if sponsorship was banned for just their sector and not other artistic or cultural events.”
As we climb aboard another roller-coaster Dail session, it’ll be fascinating to see whether his Committee’s views are reflected in any legislation to be introduced.