Here in Ireland, a giant booze company wants us to stop our out-of-control drinking. Their "Stop Out-of-Control Drinking" scheme—a visionary name for a visionary campaign—is financially backed by the multinational alcoholic-beverage company Diageo, which now cares very much about your liver.
Diageo is the world's biggest producer of spirits; they make a lot of money off of people getting drunk. They also own Guinness, Bushmills, and Baileys, some of Ireland's most beloved drinks. A bit too beloved, in fact, according to the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign, which hopes to "break the cycle of passing a cultural acceptance of excessive drinking from one generation to the next."
My question is this: Why is an alcohol company that makes millions from booze sales backing a public-health campaign about alcohol?
I spoke to Rolande Anderson, former alcohol project director for the Irish College of General Practitioners, who's now working full-time as a counselor to Ireland's alcoholics.
"Make no mistake, what they are doing is incredibly clever," he said. "I'm trying to help people who can't stop drinking while they are spreading a very intricate and complicated message about alcohol. The slogan to 'enjoy alcohol responsibly' is a good example. We all focus on the former, 'enjoy,' and leave out the latter. Using these types of slogans in a celebratory environment, like a sports game, pushes the 'enjoy' even further to the foreground. It's remarkably clever marketing."
The link between sports and the alcohol industry in Ireland is colossal. Rugby players fly past the word "Heineken" on the pitch as drunk fans cheer on their team in the Carling Cup.
Over the past few decades, professional Irish sports events—like pretty much any sports events in any alcohol-consuming country—have become submerged in booze. This is something the Irish government has conspicuously failed to address in a new public-health bill dealing with Ireland's alcohol problem.
The bill, which introduces minimum pricing (bad news, White Lightning fans), along with a new health warning labeling, ignores the strange relationship between alcohol and sports in Ireland. When the Irish minister for health was asked if he was bullied by the drinks industry to drop a ban on alcohol companies sponsoring sporting events, he quickly shifted the blame to sports bodies, before noting that the alcohol industry had lobbied against it too.
So the alcohol industry wants to keep its claws firmly embedded in our sporting events, making me wonder whether this campaign to Stop Out-of-Control drinking—sponsored by Diageo, which makes a shitload of money from our out-of-control drinking—is all just a load of bullshit.
Suzanne Costello from Alcohol Action Ireland, a charity that deals with alcohol-related issues, spells it out in a statement offered to me about Diageo's involvement in a public health campaign:
The objective of the alcohol industry is to maximise its profits through the sale of its products, and it is legally entitled to do so. However, alcohol harm is a public health issue and the conflicting interests of private profit and public health cannot be reconciled when it comes to addressing our harmful relationship with alcohol. The alcohol industry, through funding campaigns such as this, seeks a role for itself in policy areas such as health that extend far beyond its responsibilities as a producer and retailer of alcohol, and in which it has no expertise simply as it provides an opportunity for it to influence the policy agenda in ways that favor its business interests.
To hear the other side, I contacted Conor Dempsey from Demsey Corporate, who runs PR for the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign. I asked if I could speak to the campaign's board members to get some information on why they felt Diageo was a good choice to back this campaign. Dempsey asked me to supply the following:
• How do you see this feature being framed?
• The main editorial points.
• Who else do you think you will interview?
• Your perspective, if any, on our campaign.
When I refused to provide this information he sent me a link to an Irish Times article by board member Fergus Finlay, but declined to provide any further comment in robust terms.
Fergus Finlay is chief executive of the children's charity Barnardos and sits on the board of Stop Out-of-Control Drinking with 13 others, including Dr. Ciara Kelly, Ireland's premier media doctor, and the Country Director of Diageo, David Smith. It was reported by the Sunday Business Post in 2001 that Finlay previously worked as a public affairs consultant to three multinational tobacco companies.
In his Irish Times op-ed Finlay wrote: "The problem for some, it seems, is with Diageo. In their eyes they are some kind of evil empire. The rest of us are knaves or fools because we have been sucked in by some devious corporate entity, and are providing a front for some nefarious public relations stunt."
But he also previously told the Sunday Business Post: "Tobacco is perceived as a product that requires a very high degree of regulation because it's perceived as being dangerous. I work with the tobacco companies to ensure that regulation is addressed in a fair and reasonable way."
Finlay himself claims he left the tobacco account after one month and that the only representation he ever made on their behalf was to suggest meetings with the Department of Health. But Finlay is just one man who has been linked to the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign with tobacco connections.
Another board member is Kieran Mulvey, who is chairman of the Irish Sports Council. He previously said that Ireland's competitive sporting edge would be " destroyed" by a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sporting events. So Kieran likes our booze-backed rugby games and was against the government's now abandoned plan to ban alcohol sponsorship of sporting events.
So that's a public health campaign about alcohol misuse that counts the following among its board members: A former public affairs man for the tobacco industry; a man opposed to proposed government legislation on the control of alcohol; the national director of the world's biggest drinks company.
The reality, of course, is that alcohol companies do not want you to stop drinking. They want you to keep buying their products, because otherwise they go bust.
I spoke to Professor Joe Barry, head of the Department of Public Health and Primary Care in Trinity College Dublin. He talked about the realities of an alcohol awareness campaign backed by the alcohol industry.
"My concern with Diageo is that they control the majority share of alcohol use in Ireland," he said. "They have fought and resisted global evidence-based initiatives, like minimum unit pricing of alcohol, [and] in the past they lobbied against drink-driving legislation. I would not trust them. They only have one aim."
Professor Barry also noted that the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign does not follow guidelines recommended by the Word Health Organisation (WHO) on how much booze we should consume.
"We need to provide people with information," he said. "When Fergus Finlay was asked how much we should drink, he said it was 'unhelpful' to think like that. The WHO and HSE [Ireland's Health Service Executive] give explicit guidelines on alcohol consumption to help people reduce their intake and to stop them from drinking too much in one go."
I contacted Diageo's head of PR in Ireland, Hazel Chu, and asked for a statement about why an alcohol company would back an alcohol awareness campaign alerting people to the dangers of drinking. I got this:
Diageo is delighted to be able to be part of the 'Stop Out-of-Control Drinking' campaign and share in the learning with some of the most dedicated and passionate people in Ireland. We have always sought to work with people and organisations who genuinely want to make a real difference in how we think about and use alcohol. Diageo is one of the most trusted and respected companies in the world. We also own some of the most iconic Irish brands. We have a long term commitment to play a positive role in the Alcohol in Society debate and we are willing to work with any individual and organization with an interest in reducing alcohol misuse. We cannot address this problem adequately by working in silos; we have to work together as individuals, organizations and society to find a lasting solution to out of control drinking.
Let's dissect this a little: Diageo works with "dedicated and passionate people," with people who "genuinely want to make a real difference." We can trust them because they own "iconic Irish brands" and they want to find a lasting solution to our "out of control" drinking.
We've all seen Mad Men.
Irish people are characterized as pissheads. We're told our culture is welded to booze. When Obama visited we threw a pint at him. On a recent trip to the High Court, I noticed the Harp symbol above where the judge was sitting. I immediately thought, Guinness. So yes, Ireland admittedly does need to deal with its alcohol problem, but it needs to do that with evidence-based campaigns, not with what we're currently being offered.
Suzanne Costello from Alcohol Action Ireland picks apart the flaws in this booze-company-backed campaign perfectly:
"Use of the phrase 'out of control' is indicative of the alcohol industry approach of attributing the wide range of serious problems associated with its products on a so-called 'minority' who, we are told, drink 'irresponsibly.' However, this flies in the face of all the evidence and is completely at odds with the reality of the situation in Ireland," she said. "The Health Research Board found last year that more than half [54 percent] of 18- to 75-year-old drinkers were classified as harmful drinkers and that 75 percent of all alcohol consumed in Ireland in 2013 was done so as part of a binge-drinking session. This is reflected by our unacceptably high levels of alcohol harm, which sees three people die every day in Ireland from alcohol-related harm."
Come on, Ireland, look out for your people; don't sell us down this sticky, boozy river.