Home > Joint Committee on Health and Children: Alcohol marketing: discussion with NOffLA and MEAS.

[Oireachtas] Joint Committee on Health and Children: Alcohol marketing: discussion with NOffLA and MEAS. (01 Dec 2011)

URL: http://debates.oireachtas.ie/HEJ/2011/12/01/00004....


Chairman: I welcome our visitors, Ms Evelyn Jones, chairperson and Mr. Jim McCabe, National Off-Licence Association and Fionnuala Sheehan, Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society Limited, MEAS. 

I will begin by reminding witnesses of the position in regard to privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. However, if witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

 

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

 

I welcome the three witnesses to the committee and the Houses. I invite Ms Evelyn Jones to make a presentation on behalf of NOffLA, the National Off-Licence Association.

 

Ms Evelyn Jones:  I thank the committee for inviting us to present to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. I am Evelyn Jones, chairperson of NOffLA, the National Off-Licence Association. I am accompanied by our national spokesperson, Mr. Jim McCabe. We are both owner-operators of independent specialist off-licences.

 

The National Off-Licence Association, NOffLA, welcomes this opportunity to put forward our opinions on alcohol marketing and minimum pricing and to answer any questions members of the committee may have. We would like to address both of these important issues in the context of the impact on the youth of this country and the business environment in which we operate. Before we do so, I wish to introduce NOffLA - the National Off-Licence Association.

 

NOffLA was established in 1991 and represents independent specialist off-licences across Ireland. Our association works together with its 330 members, representing 5,600 jobs in 26 counties. Our mission is to promote the responsible sale, marketing and consumption of alcohol and to share best practices with the entire trade. Our members’ outlets are specialist or pure off-licences. They tend to be owner-operated and located in the heart of the community. We employ expertise in responsibly retailing many unique products. We take pride in sourcing products and advising our customers on their purchases. Alcohol is our primary product and our members are trained and responsible retailers of alcohol. We hold ourselves to best practice standards in carrying out the sale of alcohol in this country.

 

NOffLA’s members are today operating in a very difficult business environment and, unfortunately, there is a misleading perception that the specialist off-licence trade is doing well because of recent shifts to home consumption. That is not the case. The move to home consumption has not been to the benefit of independent specialist stores. If we take wine as an example, according to Nielson Ireland research, nearly 80% of all wine sold for take-home consumption in Ireland last year was in grocery, convenience and petrol outlets.

 

NOffLA’s members have seen dramatic changes within the drinks industry. The country’s economic downturn, coupled with recent ad hoc legislation, often with unintended and unforeseen consequences, have created an environment where too much alcohol can be obtained too cheaply in too many outlets. The legislative environment that has fed this situation includes: the deregulation of off-licencesin Ireland, which has seen a relaxation of licence transfers and a proliferation of ill-trained, non-specialist retailers in convenience stores, petrol stations and supermarkets; the repeal of the groceries orderin March 2006 has had a profound impact on the sale of cheap alcohol because it has allowed the re-introduction of below-cost selling of alcohol; the inconsistent application of planning rules has seen the emphasis shift away from local, independent and specialist main street retailers to edge-of-town supermarkets and chains dominating retail across Ireland; reduced operating hoursmeans that off-licences are now obliged to close at 10 p.m. while all other licensed premises can stay open until midnight and beyond; and the reliance on a voluntary code regarding the separation of alcohol productsand the use of alcohol as a promotional tool, two important points on which I will elaborate in due course.

 

The irresponsible promotion and sale of cheap alcohol is being used as a driver of footfall into supermarkets, petrol stations and convenience stores and that is ultimately making the survival of many small, family-owned off-licences impossible. This will have lasting socio-economic consequences for many communities around the country as small local retailers are driven out of business. NOffLA’s members now find themselves in an unsustainable trading environment. In the past three years alone, 2,600 jobs have been lost in the independent off-licence sector, with average turnover down by between 25% and 50%. We are here today to work with the Government and the committee to find solutions to ensure the sustainability of this important, nationwide, indigenous set of enterprises and employers. We want to ensure the retail and consumption of alcohol is promoted and traded in a responsible manner.

 

A number of problems exist today in relation to alcohol marketing and the impact that it is having on young people in Ireland. NOffLA members never market to young people. We are community-based and it just would not be tolerated, but it seems there are clear trends among other retailers to reach a youth market, through advertising and positioning. It is our opinion that there are a number of straightforward solutions to current alcohol-related problems. We believe legislation has an essential role to play in addressing the effects of alcohol sales and marketing on societal and health issues. In light of this, NOffLA would like to make the following statement before the committee: voluntary codes of practice do not work for the retail and marketing of alcohol.

 

At the moment in Ireland there is an unnecessary over-reliance on self-regulation and voluntary codes of practice. It genuinely pains NOffLA to make this statement in the context of the MEAS code of practice. We respect that code and its robust processes and we adhere to it ourselves. However, industry-wide co-operation is lacking. The softer RRAI, mixed trader codes have undermined the MEAS code of practice by allowing mixed traders to adhere to its lesser conditions and by refusing to recognise MEAS’s right to handle complaints against the mixed trading sector. Legislation currently exists which was specifically drafted in 2008 to deal with the ill-effects of irresponsible alcohol sales and marketing. NOffLA is not asking the Government to add to its already heavy workload; it simply calls on the Government to end the reliance on voluntary codes of practice and enact legislation which already exists, namely, sections 9 and 16 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008.

 

Section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act provides for the structural separation of alcohol products from other products in supermarkets, convenience stores, petrol stations and any other licenced premises which are deemed to be mixed trading. At the time of the Act’s delivery, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, following consultation with some retailers, agreed to defer this section in favour of a voluntary code of practice. The deferral was entirely conditional on the industry code of practice being strictly observed and implemented by the Responsible Retailing of Alcohol in Ireland, RRAI, group which comprises mixed traders. However, what we are now seeing is alcohol being sold in stores beside confectionary, snacks and magazines, which is a direct target to young people. Equally, clever insertion of phrases into the code such as, “as far as possible”, negate its proposed intention and allow for constant irresponsible manipulation of the display and sale of alcohol in Ireland. There is nationwide evidence that this code is not being enforced and section 9 must be now enacted.

 

Section 16 is the second deferred section of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 and makes provision for prohibiting or restricting the use of alcohol as a promotional toolin advertising. At the time of the enactment of the legislation the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, also deferred this section and permitted a voluntary code of practice instead. This deferral, much like section 9, is conditional on the voluntary code of practice being strictly implemented and the Minister being satisfied that the same aims are being accomplished. It is apparent, however, that this code is not being implemented in the spirit in which it was intended. The newspapers are awash with cut-price and volume deals of alcohol as the large retailers use alcohol to compete for their grocery market share. It is clear voluntary codes of practice are not suitable vehicles for alcohol control. NOffLA asks the committee how a product included in the national substance misuse strategy could be permitted to be retailed in this manner. Change is needed and the simplest solution is the enactment of the deferred section of the legislation.

 

The next significant issue is alcohol pricing, a specific topic for discussion at this meeting. The retail price of alcohol which is related to the issue of marketing is a source of serious concern for NOffLA members. NOffLA believes there is one clear solution with two aspects, both of which must work in tandem. First, there must be a minimum pricing mechanism introduced such that deals on cheap alcohol do not result in prices that dip below a statutorily imposed minimum. Second, there must be a ban on below invoice cost selling such that deals promoting heavily discounted below cost branded alcohol to drive footfall to sell other dearer products would be banned. The introduction of minimum pricing would ensure the sale of cheap alcohol, priced at the lowest levels, would cease by establishing base values for its retail price. Minimum pricing would deter the retailing of cheap, obscure brands of alcohol which are gaining in popularity in Ireland. Details and examples can be found in our submission which was circulated prior to the meeting.

 

The problem of branded drinks being discounted below cost and sold in volume remains. Branded alcohol is, by its very nature, dearer and its lure to the consumer is that it is perceived as a premium product offered at a much lower price or quantity than normal. Only the banning of retailing alcohol at below invoice cost price would take care of this.

 

Consider the issue of VAT rebates. As it stands, retailers are allowed to reclaim VAT on the losses they incur on products chosen to be sold below cost. Any alcohol sold below cost attracts a VAT refund of 21% from the Government. Banning the retailing of alcohol at below invoice cost price would have the added benefit of preventing retailers from reclaiming on this loss. We call on the Minister for Finance to sign the ministerial order banning below invoice cost selling as soon as possible.

 

Mandatory identification and mandatory training are of serious concern to NOffLA which is acutely aware of the problems the country faces with regard to underage drinking, as well as the need for retailers to play their part in countering the ill-effects of alcohol, particularly on young people. For 20 years, NOffLA’s members have been calling on the Government to introduce mandatory identification for the purchase of all alcohol products, regardless of one’s age, as is the case in the United States. This is one of the most effective ways to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors and a critical first step in addressing the problem of under age drinking and alcohol abuse. Alcohol is not like other products; its purchase should be conscious, no matter what age one is.

 

NOffLA’s members have been calling on the Government to introduce mandatory training for any person retailing alcohol. Selling alcohol is very different from selling groceries or petrol and our members are committed to ensuring the retail of alcohol is undertaken in the most responsible manner and controlled environment. Staff who sell alcohol need to not only be fully familiar with current licensing laws but also trained to deal with problematic situations regarding under age purchasing, drunkenness and anti-social behaviour. NOffLA has made costly investments of its membership subscriptions towards developing training that is practical, relevant and accessible. Training is paramount for us. We have trained over 1,000 specialist off-licence employees and, in the past month alone, awarded 155 fully grant-aided training courses to members and their staff.

 

Each NOffLA member must, as a requirement of membership, undertake the responsible trading in the community, RTC, training programme which has been acknowledged in Ireland as the most positive initiative to promote responsible retailing of alcohol. In addition to being provided with classroom training by our full-time trainer, specialist alcohol retailers have access to a dedicated, interactive e-learning facility delivered directly into our members’ outlets. This can lead to a qualification for a responsible trading certificate on completion of an examination. The integrity of the RTC programme is founded on the basis that companies and individuals involved on a day-to-day basis with consumers of alcohol need to make a binding commitment to conduct their trade in the most responsible and professional manner. Alcohol is enjoyed when retailed and consumed in a responsible, mature and appropriate manner and NOffLA recognises the need to work in partnership with the Government to promote responsible consumption in order to reduce alcohol abuse and alcohol-related harm. It is critical that the environment, both legislative and commercial, in which alcohol is sold and consumed be appropriate to the needs of the industry, the consumer and wider society.

 

Alcohol is not like other grocery products. There are basic common-sense rules that apply to its sale and purchase. We need support from the legislators in the form of a sensible legislative environment allowing responsible alcohol retailers to sell products without the constant fear of getting it wrong. Alcohol is our only product and a failure to adhere to the law means a loss of livelihood. We do not fear legislation; we welcome it.

 

Our members are proud, responsible retailers with specialist knowledge and expertise. We do not further or promote the misuse of alcohol, nor have we created an environment in which misuse can thrive. Why then are we seeing the reputation of our skilled trade being destroyed, with specialist, responsible retailers becoming an endangered species? We call and will continue to call on the Government to acknowledge the impact on small Irish businesses that pressure from big business interests and irresponsible practices has brought to bear. On behalf of my association, we demand action and call on legislators to adopt common-sense, proactive initiatives such as the mandatory separation of alcohol products, mandatory advertising regulation, minimum pricing, a ban on below cost selling, mandatory training and mandatory identification. As I said, we do not fear legislation; we welcome it. We look forward to answering members’ questions.

 

Chairman: I thank Ms Jones. I now invite Ms Sheehan from MEAS to make her presentation.

 

Ms Fionnuala Sheehan:  I thank the Chairman for inviting MEAS to contribute to the committee’s discussion on alcohol marketing, with particular reference to minimum pricing and the targeting of young people. I am the chief executive officer of MEAS. We have provided a written submission which I hope members have had an opportunity to read. I hope to introduce, by PowerPoint, the key points we are keen to impart to members.

 

I am the founding chief executive of MEAS which has been operational since 2003. For nine years theretofore, I was deputy registrar at the University of Limerick. It is in that context that I came in contact with the issue of alcohol. When the president of the university decided we would engage in a visioning exercise, our Vision 2020 exercise, one of the key areas identified was the development of the whole person. The university took the view that its responsibility was not just to bring young people through and give them high quality awards at the end of their three or four year periods but also to develop them in a rounder way. It was in this regard that I, as deputy registrar with responsibility for welfare services, with others, got involved in addressing the issue of alcohol. This led to my contacting the Higher Education Authority to look for money to support the implementation of a college alcohol policy for the University of Limerick. This, in turn, led to the development of a framework for a college alcohol policy. I chaired the group which included representatives from all the universities and institutes of technology which developed the framework policy. I came into MEAS from that background.

 

I hope members have had an opportunity to learn more about MEAS through its submission. The organisation is particularly involved in three areas, on which I intend to focus my comments. This is because we have some experience and expertise in these areas and believe we have something to offer. The first area is alcohol regulation at the retail level, the second concerns training in the responsible serving of alcohol and the third relates to the use of social marketing and communications in a positive way to try to positively affect the issues regarding harmful alcohol use, as well as the promotion of responsible drinking, to which I will return.

 

In respect of alcohol regulation, I state the obvious by noting alcohol regulation is a necessary tool to have. It is also necessary that it must evolve and develop to meet the changing needs and concerns of Irish society. In this area, I am keen to get across three key messages to members. While I may echo the points made by the National Off-Licence Association, NOffLA, in respect of some of them, I emphasise the importance of a coherent approach in this area. We have had plenty of evidence up to now of a fragmented approach to the regulation of alcohol, in particular at the retail level, and MEAS is anxious that such an approach should not continue. I also raise the importance of assessing the impact of planned initiatives to avoid unintended negative consequences because again, there has been evidence of such highly negative consequences occurring. The final message concerns the importance of having in place a mechanism for the enforcement of measures that are considered. Although we already have a great number of laws in this area, they are either not being enforced or are not being enforced fully. These are the three key messages I am keen to get across to members.

 

In the context of the elements that would comprise an effective system of alcohol regulation, the options open to one are regulation by statute, co-regulation, which is where self-regulation or regulatory activity and State control are linked, which can be done to varying degrees of strength, or voluntary regulation or a combination of some or all of these approaches. The next slide in the presentation shows the regulatory architecture and the elements that exist in Ireland. I hope all members have to hand a copy of the presentation that was circulated to them in case there are difficulties in seeing the slides, some of which are a little fuller than others. I will discuss these categories in a little more detail but essentially, they include the laws of the land and direct statutory or regulatory rules. In addition, a co-regulatory system is in place with various systems and regimes supporting that and there are also self-regulatory codes. MEAS is of the view that the regulatory architecture should always include some aspect of self-regulation as there is a duty on all parties to respect proper standards and to respond positively to the concerns of society, particularly those concerns relating to younger people.

 

The next slide shows a chart containing five blocks in a line across the screen and takes a closer look at what Ireland’s current regulatory architecture looks like. First, there are the laws of the land. It obviously is important and necessary for all those who operate in this field to comply with the laws of the land. In this context, I refer to company law, competition law, constitutional law and so on, where they arise and are relevant. The next block across refers to the statutory part of the architecture. I am aware the joint committee already has heard presentations from delegations concerned with some of these areas. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland Act is concerned with broadcast media in Ireland. In addition, there are the liquor licensing laws, of which there are many and which extend back many years. Ms Evelyn Jones made reference to the groceries order, which contained a legislative item that had a particular impact or import as far as alcohol was concerned. The third block refers to the co-regulatory codes that are in place. The joint committee also heard presentations from groups concerned with these codes and I will say a little more about them shortly. These codes are very much concerned with the marketing and sponsorship of alcohol. They consider the content of such activity, that is, they consider what such advertising pieces can be and where alcohol should be placed.

 

The next block is comprised of self-regulatory codes, which include the MEAS code and the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland, ASAI, code. I note the joint committee heard a presentation from that authority at its last session. There is the Responsible Retailers of Alcohol in Ireland, RRAI, code, which Ms Jones mentioned, which again I will talk about in a moment, as well as a NOffLA code. The last block on the right refers to individual alcohol company codes. The companies have individual codes as well, which in some cases are stronger in some aspects, if one was to look at where they stood relative to the other areas I have mentioned in the other blocks.

 

That is the current regulatory architecture. However, in the pipeline there already exist some additional statutory regulatory items that could be brought into play. I refer to the present position in respect of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008, to which Ms Jones already has made reference. Section 16 of that Act relates to alcohol promotions and some regulations in that regard already have been drafted, such as, for example, those that would prevent a buy-one-get-one-free type of promotion. Ms Jones also mentioned section 9, which is the provision that considers the area of alcohol merchandising. It would require a structural separation of alcohol from the other grocery products in the mixed trade sector. I draw members’ attention to this provision - I will say a little more about it later - because it does not include all categories of alcohol. While it would require the structural separation of beer and spirits, it does not require structural separation of wine. Under section 9 as it stands at present, were that regulation to be put into effect, it would be okay for wine to be out and to be mixed with other grocery products. However, wine is a product in Ireland that in the last ten years, has grown from representing approximately 12% of all products to approximately 26% today. Consequently, this is an anomaly, to say the least.

 

Furthermore, the recently enacted Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 provides the Minister for Justice and Equality with the opportunity to recognise or to develop a code of practice and enables non-compliance with such a code of practice to be taken into account when licence renewal comes up. Finally, under consideration at present is the issue of minimum pricing or the repeal of the groceries order or both. This is the scenario that exists at present in respect of the architecture we have in place and the possibilities that exist from the point of view of the draw-down of legislation.

 

I will move on to say a little more about the systems supporting the co-regulatory and voluntary codes, which are shown on the next slide in a series of yellow blocks. As I stated with regard to the co-regulatory codes, a regime was put in place in 2002 and strengthened in 2006 and again in 2008, which considers the sponsorship and marketing of alcohol and where alcohol can be placed. These codes are co-regulatory because they were developed between the Department of Health and the media and alcohol industries. The voluntary ASAI code deals both with alcohol and practically all commercial advertising in all media. The joint committee heard a presentation at its last session from Mr. Peter Cassells, who chairs the Alcohol Marketing Communications Monitoring Body, AMCMB, and members are probably moithered at this stage with all these blocks and bodies. However, that body was set up specifically in 2008 to monitor these co-regulatory codes. The role of the ASAI is to assess any complaints that come through in respect of those codes. In the block just beside the AMCMB, a block shows Central Copy Clearance Ireland, CCCI, which is a very important initiative. It is unique internationally and was introduced in Ireland in 2003 or thereabouts. It effectively is mandatory but requires all those who contemplate bringing forward an item of alcohol advertising to have it reviewed by CCCI to ensure compliance with a range of codes. There is buy-in from the media industry, in that it will not broadcast any media piece unless it has a certificate of compliance from CCCI. That is very important. In addition, there is a voluntary buy-in from the United Kingdom channels to comply with this system. This is particularly important in Ireland in respect of the codes, because 70% of the under-18s in Ireland are viewing UK channels. The voluntary MEAS code is concerned with the naming, packaging, promotion and merchandising of alcohol. It was set up in 2004. It relates both to the on and off trade and has an independent complaints panel. Various aspects of the code are set out at the back of the written submission members of the committee got, including its compliance with them. A problem arose vis-à-vis the MEAS code, which started in 2006, because the groceries order was repealed and alcohol was included in that repeal. I have included in the submission a copy of my letter to the then Minister for Enterprise and Trade pointing out that it seemed inevitable that the abolition of the groceries order would fuel a war on the pricing of alcohol products. It does not give me any great pleasure to be pointing all of this out again. I also pointed out that the messages communicated to the public in this context would more than counter efforts to communicate messages about responsibility around drinking. My letter also stated that such an outcome was unlikely to serve the Irish consumer in the short to medium term or to enhance the quality of Irish society. In addition, it would lead to increased footfall and alcohol being used as a footfall driver in the mixed trade centre, and that is exactly what has happened.

 

Chairman: I am just conscious that we have a vote in a minute in the Dáil. I do not want Ms Sheehan to get lost in translation, so if she wants to get to the suggestions. I do not mean to be rude, but we have a vote and I want to get other people in who have to go as well.

 

Ms Fionnuala Sheehan:  My point is that we had a code of practice and saw what was going to happen by repealing a piece of legislation and it has all transpired. The problem with a voluntary code is that it cannot deal with an issue like price because it will come into conflict with competition law. Given what has transpired, which is what we thought would happen - and we say that regrettably - that is why there is a need to look at the reintroduction of that groceries order or, if minimum pricing is to be examined fully and seriously, it needs to be so considered because it is not tested in this part of the world. In fact, minimum pricing is being used in a limited way already. It needs to be fully examined because we do not want to have unintended consequences again. That is what we wish to flag on that front.

 

I mentioned the voluntary responsible retailing of alcohol in Ireland code, which was introduced in 2008. We cautioned against the introduction of an additional voluntary code. We felt it would have been far better to develop the MEAS code to deal with this particular area because we now have an over-lapping code and the situation has moved on. We had a major supermarket withdrawing from the MEAS code because its view was that the RAI code was relevant to all their areas of activity. The LVA and VFI also withdrew because they saw an inequity in the system. If they were to adhere to the standards of the MEAS code it would have placed them at a disadvantage.

 

In this slide I am saying that regulation is fragmented at the retail level. A multiplicity of codes creates these problems with confusion among the public and those who are to implement the codes. The codes are of varying rigour, one soft and one less soft, and there is inequity between the sectors. We already have inequity between the on and off trades, which has been exacerbated by this.

 

There is clearly a role for regulation by statute in Ireland but such regulation is not a panacea. I will give one example of that. In 2003, happy hour legislation was introduced but that has not worked because we now have happy days. There is such a facility through a voluntary code or a co-regulatory code because there is compliance not just in the letter but in the spirit of the code. In addition, it can react more readily to an innovative market for codes beyond the statutory, to play a role in getting a coherent regulatory architecture in place to address this area as fully as possible.

 

MEAS calls for the introduction of a single comprehensive co-regulatory code, in the sense that it would be backed through legislation and there would be stronger sanctions. It would deal with areas that legislation cannot deal with, but it recognises that there will obviously be a role for statutory legislation as well. The key area for statute will concern those over-arching areas, for example, those that focus on and link in to competition law. We are talking about retail price issues. Our call for a single comprehensive code is to avoid inequity between sectors, of which we have had plenty. It is also to try to ensure that we do not have a fragmented approach to regulation in future. It should be co-regulatory because we see the need for much strengthened sanctions on this front. The statute must be there to play its role, while recognising that it has its limitations.

 

I am keen to focus on two other key areas. We agree with NOffLA and have been supporting a responsible serving of alcohol programme since 2003 when we were set up. It was developed by the Department of Health in collaboration with the industry. Fáilte Ireland works with us on that code. From the time MEAS was set up we have been calling for that code to be made mandatory. Like NOffLA, we are strongly of the view that alcohol is not an ordinary product. Of course, it is subject to much regulation, which makes perfect sense given the nature of the product. Why is it that we have this anomaly for those who are serving the product, that they are not required by law to undertake a programme to a required standard? When it comes to an individual seeking a licence, or a licence renewal, why do they not have this training in place?

 

We share some of the views expressed by NOffLA this morning concerning ID. We also have views on distance sales. We have an anomalous situation at the moment whereby persons between 18 and 20 are meant to carry ID. There is confusion about what ID a person should carry or indeed what the law says regarding the licensee also when it comes to a challenge in court. We feel there should be a universal ID card. We would prize it because it would give us access to State benefits, including facilities and services. That is the card we would carry and present when seeking to purchase alcohol. It would certainly improve compliance and enforcement.

 

Distance sales is an area of concern. The type of test purchasing that is being introduced in traditional sales should also be examined with regard to distance selling of alcohol.

 

The third area in which we have some background is the drinkaware.ie programme, and we have brought forward some recommendations today. This programme was established in the context of the Government-sponsored “Sustaining Progress” special initiative on alcohol, which brought forward a number of recommendations in 2006. One of those related to the need for greater communication on responsible drinking to the consumer. The alcohol industry was around the table with all the other bodies and, to support its commitment within that particular context, it asked MEAS to develop and deliver the programme I will tell the committee about in a moment.

 

The special initiative identified three areas which needed to be examined and produced recommendations on all of those. One of them was under-age drinking, the second was excessive drinking and the third was drink driving. MEAS decide it would concentrate on the area of excessive drinking. MEAS felt that drink driving was going to be examined by the Road Safety Authority. It would certainly work with all the other relevant bodies but under-age drinking was probably more relevant to the HSE. That is not to say that the subject of excessive drinking would be exclusively for MEAS because MEAS works in partnership with a broad range of bodies in this area. The programme we have developed is supported by research. We have looked in a focused way at the issue and, while it arises nationally, it is most pronounced among 18 to 29 year olds.

 

We have had to target our communications to be effective. Our initial target audience comprised individuals aged between 18 and 29 years but we reduced the upper age limit to 24 years on foot of further research we are conducting on an ongoing basis. We evaluate the research on an annual basis for credibility of messenger, brand awareness, message take-out, channel effectiveness, attitude change and behavioural change. We started with a big campaign, “know the one that’s one too many”, and moved on to the “had enough” campaign after conducting further research and identifying insights. This is a difficult area in which to engage the consumer but we discovered that consumers are somewhat open to considering the issue in circumstances where excessive drinking was having an impact on an innocent and sober third party. Unless we challenged our drinking culture in Ireland, other messages would not go far.

 

We approach our campaigns on two levels. On a general cultural level, our messages go to a broad audience but we are also operating at a more tactical level. The “had enough” campaign was the first to speak to the issue of culture in terms of recognising Ireland’s long-standing culture of excess. We give social permission for people to behave in this manner. By encouraging people to say they have had enough, we want them to have a stronger voice and withdraw that social permission. We followed that campaign with the “rethinking our drinking” campaign which is currently underway.

 

We use a variety of mass and digital media. Our mass media campaigns are supported by a series of tactical initiatives undertaken with a broad range of stakeholders and organisations. At a tactical level they aim at supporting behavioural change. They are targeted at engaging the consumer at the right moment. We have used media in innovative ways to achieve these goals.

 

One example of these tactical campaigns is the “morning after” campaign we are undertaking with the Road Safety Authority, with the support of the Garda and a range of organisations. Our message is that a driver should have no alcohol in his or her system. As it takes an hour to get rid of a standard drink, the alcohol may still be in one’s system on the morning after a night of socialising. People have been seeking this key piece of information from the Road Safety Authority and our organisation. The campaign received widespread support from various organisations and additional messages are distributed to pubs and clubs around the country to educate people about standard drinks.

 

I brought the dare to be drink aware short film competition to the committee’s attention recently by way of letter. We were asked to present the competition as a best practice initiative to the recent EU alcohol and health forum, which was established by the Directorate General for Health and Consumers to support implementation of the EU’s alcohol strategy. The forum comprises stakeholders from the health, community and business sectors. Membership of the forum requires a commitment which will be monitored and evaluated. We committed parts of the drinkaware.ie programme and we were asked to make a presentation on the competition, which is a part of the broader programme.

 

We developed the competition because we were keen to encourage those aged between 18 and 24 years to reflect on Irish society’s relationship with alcohol. Our aim was to facilitate young people in communicating the results of this exploration in young people’s media. We were conscious of the potential of user generated media, that is, young people developing their own content and using YouTube or Facebook to share it to their friends. Young people were encouraged reflect on the issues arising through teamwork in order to develop messages that could be delivered on a peer-to-peer basis. The campaign is delivered through a partnership with the faculties and student unions of Irish colleges and the Digital Hub Development Agency. It has been evaluated and is meeting the objectives of each of the partners.

 

Drinkaware’s work is evaluated on an ongoing basis through quantitative and qualitative research methods. Although I do not attribute the trend completely to our work, per capita consumption of alcohol has decreased in Ireland over the last ten years. Consumption has decreased by between 18% and 20% among over 15 year olds, over 18 years olds and the general population.

 

I recognise that the committee is especially concerned with younger people. The average age of first drinking has been decreasing over the last 20 years. This is a complex issue but it should be of concern to everyone. The decrease is linked to the experience of growing up in a changing Ireland. The changes appear to have levelled off from 2007 onwards, which is a positive sign. I draw members’ attention to two surveys. The ESPAD is a longitudinal survey carried out in Ireland and approximately 30 other European countries every four years. Among other matters, it tracks drinking habits among 16 year olds. Between 2003 and 2007, there was a significant improvement in the number of 16 year olds who reported that they did not drink in the month preceding the survey. The figure had increased from 27% in 2003 to 42% in 2007. These are alarming figures but the improvement is also important. There was also an improvement from 28% to 53% among those who stated they had not been drunk in the previous year. These statistics have not been publicised, however. It is particularly important that we make 16 year olds in Ireland aware that approximately half of their peer groups are not drinking on a regular basis. This age cohort is heavily influenced by peer pressure.

 

We have been directly involved in the morning after message.

 

Chairman: I am conscious that there will be a vote in the Dáil shortly.

 

Ms Fionnuala Sheehan:  I am just about to conclude. It is possible to see the improvement in those who now understand what a standard drink is. Awareness of this has increased from 48% when we started this in 2009 up to 61%. I have not inserted the statistic on how long it takes to eliminate a standard drink from one’s system. If I had time I was going to ask members. Perhaps we can come back to that later during the question and answer session. Do members know how long it takes to eliminate a standard drink from one’s system? We have been getting that message out.

 

Being drunk in public is becoming less attractive, with 89% indicating that is the case. It is good that there has been a reduction in public order offences as reported by the CSO. There is a very high level of awareness of drinkaware.ie. There is a strong acceptance of the brand and what it is doing. This is particularly true for an age group that is very hard to reach in terms of communication - even beyond communication and getting their engagement. The drinkaware.ie website is only a small piece of what we do but it is a very important reference source when it comes to alcohol.

 

There is a greater understanding coming through that the tools of social marketing, as we call them, can be used in a very positive way to try to get engagement and try to promote attitude and behaviour change in a range of areas in this social context. From our experience we would feel there is a major opportunity to harness the expertise and resources of all the stakeholders to look at alcohol, of course, but also to look at health in the round, recognising the many interdependencies, including between alcohol and food, alcohol and fitness, and alcohol and positive mental health. We need to exploit - using its best possible meaning - those interdependencies and particularly the synergies that can be derived from looking at health in the round and with the involvement of all the stakeholders employing what I would call the tools of social marketing that are being recognised as playing a very strong role on this front and will have a stronger role in future. Last September the second world social marketing conference was held in Ireland. The support for that was such that another one is planned to take place shortly. There is a growing awareness that these sorts of tools and modes of communication can play a very positive role in areas such as trying to address the harm related to alcohol. It cannot be on its own because this is only one piece of a much bigger jigsaw when addressing the complex area of alcohol-related harm.

 

Chairman: I call Senator Cullinane and ask him to be brief. I am conscious that we will have a vote in the Dáil. The presentations have taken 50 minutes and I want members to have a chance to contribute.

 

Senator David Cullinane: I thank Ms Jones and Ms Sheehan for their presentations. Mention was made of the possibility of restrictions in the current range of outlets that offer alcoholic products. Part of the problem is that we have many off-licences without responsible and trained staff. I believe there should be mandatory training. On one of the critical issues, we are getting to a number of key-----

 

Chairman: I apologise for interrupting Senator Cullinane. A vote has been called in the Dáil and we will need to suspend for approximately 20 minutes. Is it agreed to suspend? Agreed. I apologise to the members and witnesses.

 

Sitting suspended at 12.55 a.m. and resumed at 1.25 p.m.

 

Chairman: We will resume with Senator Cullinane.

 

Senator David Cullinane: I was making the point that we have had a number of engagements on this issue and for me the critical issue is our pricing access and the codes and systems of enforcement. It is always important to set a context. Some of the figures presented by Alcohol Action Ireland in its presentation to the committee are included in its pre-budget submission. These figures provide a number of telling facts of which we should take account. One of these is a 30% reduction in alcohol-related harm would result in a cost saving of €1 billion to the Exchequer, which is a huge amount of money. There would also be social advantages in terms of improving people’s health. One in four deaths of young men between the ages of 15 and 34 are due to alcohol and we saw a 100% increase in alcohol-related deaths between 1994 and 2005. Conversely, alcohol in Ireland is 50% more affordable than it was in 1994.

 

My question on pricing is for Ms Jones and Ms Sheehan. Debate is taking place in the political system and in the committee, and various opinions on minimum pricing and below cost selling are being put forward by groups which come before the committee. There is a difference between the two. One of the arguments which Alcohol Action Ireland made was with regard to the groceries order which was repealed in 2006. A reason it cited was a failure to monitor the industry when compliance was poor and there was a cost related to this. There was no agreed defined cost. However, a minimum price could be set which could potentially deal with the issue. There is a school of thought that minimum pricing is the best way to deal with this rather than dealing with the very complicated issue of below-cost selling. For me what is most important is that we try through whatever measures we can to reduce alcohol consumption.

 

I draw the attention of the committee to a very good report published by MEAS on alcohol and young people which contains very startling figures. One third of children have drunk by the age of 12 and the majority have drunk by the age of 15. The report compiles a number of studies arising from a number of conferences and carried out by individuals. The report shows it is very easy for children to come by alcohol, it is very easy for some, in particular girls, to get into pubs and not all outlets which sell alcohol are vigilant with regard to young people. This returns to the point I made earlier about training staff in all outlets to ensure we have the best standards.

 

As I stated, there is a difference between minimum pricing and below cost selling and I would like to hear the views of the witnesses on which approach they would favour in this regard.

 

Senator John Crown: I have asked this question before and I will ask it again, and I would like a “Yes” or “No” answer. We are all aware of the dichotomy in this country and the contradiction at the heart of the issue which is that we all know we need to drink less and that as a society we probably drink too much. We all know as individuals that we drink when we probably should not. However, we need to be objective. I will outline the facts to amplify what my colleague, Senator Cullinane, stated. If we all stopped drinking completely the following would happen: there would be less alcoholic liver disease; fewer road traffic accidents and deaths; less work in accident and emergency departments, and it is likely that accident and emergency department overcrowding and waiting lists would end; categorically, there would be less cancer of the liver, pancreas, the head and neck area, the oesophagus and other areas.

 

Recent data has shown that if we all stopped drinking alcohol there would be less breast cancer. Disappointingly, it appears there is no lower threshold for safety for alcohol consumption in terms of having an enhanced breast cancer risk. It appears to be almost none versus some. We know there would be less domestic violence and less murder. We know without alcohol there would be less rape. We also know there would be increased discretionary spending by parents on behalf of their children on food, education and clothing and it is also very likely, although no one can prove it, that parents would spend a greater amount of time parenting.

 

I believe if alcohol were discovered tomorrow it would not be legal. This is the reality. If somebody brought it back from some far-flung country we would not legalise it. Purely on the grounds of carcinogenicity it would not pass. However, it is there and the question is what to do about it.

 

With no disrespect to the witnesses before us today or those who came before the committee previously, what we have had are various discussions on where and how alcohol should be sold. People from the pub industry have told us it is more responsible to drink in pubs and that publicans provide a type of social counselling service in addition to being purveyors of alcohol. Everybody pointed their fingers at the supermarkets, and to an extent people representing pubs pointed their fingers at the off-licence sector.

 

The reality is that while the amount of alcohol consumed in this country has dipped a little in recent years because of the recession, it would be disingenuous to state anything other than that the underlying trend is that it has approximately between doubled or tripled per head of population since the 1960s. What is more, our relative position in an alcohol league table has increased dramatically. As I have mentioned previously to my colleagues, when I first went to the United States as a young doctor and people used to joke about the Irish and drink I was able to point my finger and state those from the United States, the English, the Germans, the French and the Italians all drank more than we did and had more alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver than we did. Sadly, this is changing and we drink more than them. The possible exception is France, with which we are neck and neck. Our society’s strategic goal should not only be concerned with where people drink, but also with dramatically decreasing the amount of drinking by a half or two thirds. I mean no disrespect, but the people from the alcohol industry who have attended our meetings will not be our natural allies in this initiative. That is a reality of life.

 

At my suggestion, the Irish Society for Medical Oncology has recently added its name to the list of groups that believe there should be a blanket ban on all alcohol advertising. People should only be allowed to advertise alcohol on premises where it is sold. The witnesses need to set themselves a strategic goal of diversifying their occupational exposure to a decline in alcohol consumption during the next ten years, which should be our strategic goal.

 

I hope each of the witnesses can give me a “Yes” or “No” answer to my next question. Do they agree that, as a society, we would be better off if everyone stopped drinking completely?

 

Chairman: We will revert to the Senator’s question following the next member’s contribution.

 

Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick: I thank the witnesses for attending. I congratulate the National Off-Licence Association, NOffLA, on its 5,600 jobs. I am shocked that 80% of the wine purchased is not bought in off-licences. The main reason for that is pricing. The witnesses claim they do not market to young people. How do they define “young people”? To my mind, 18-20 year olds are young. Marketing to them is not right.

 

In terms of minimum pricing, I am 100% against selling alcohol below cost and claiming back 21% VAT. If the alcohol suppliers are invoicing at below cost, are they giving off-licences a rebate on top of that figure? Is it just a question of paperwork?

 

Last year’s campaign on designated drivers did a fantastic job. It will last from 28 November to 1 January this year, but it should be better publicised. I agree that a universal ID card should be issued to people over 18 years of age to counter those who do not use the proper licences or identification. What are the witnesses’ opinions on advertising in off-licence windows? Whenever I pass an off-licence, it seems to be having some sort of deal.

 

Chairman: We will take replies to the questions that have been asked before we move on to the next set of questions from Deputies Dowds and Doherty and Senator Burke.

 

Ms Evelyn Jones:  I would love to be able to tell Senator Cullinane that either route - minimum pricing or below cost selling - could offer a solution, but neither can. Minimum pricing will take care of alcohol sold at rock bottom prices by establishing values over which it cannot be sold. This will prevent people with little disposable income from drinking to excess. However, people who have greater levels of disposable income purchase well known brands. It is the discounting of those brands to below their invoiced prices that allows them to be promoted heavily.

 

Senator David Cullinane: I was referring to young people specifically.

 

Ms Evelyn Jones:  Some young people have little disposable income while others have more. The same argument applies regardless of age. It is a question of money and whether one wants to buy the cheapest of the cheap or something perceived as a premium product. The lure of the latter is that it has been discounted, which makes it more appealing to another group of consumers. I hope I have clarified the matter for the Senator.

 

I invite my colleague, Mr. McCabe, to address the issues of training, accessibility, etc.

 

Mr. Jim McCabe:  The 2000 licensing Act deregulated the off and on trades. Prior to the Act, a licence could not be transferred outside a parish. Subsequently, licences could be granted on any street or district, which means two or three shops on one street could be selling alcohol. Mandatory training should be provided to current members of the industry. Under the legislation, one may object to a licence being granted in an area where there is already adequate supply. For some reason this provision is not adhered to, allowing for situations in which there can be as many as six licensed shops on the same street. This reverts to the Senator’s point on availability. New legislation is not required. Instead, the current law needs to be enforced.

 

Chairman: If the witnesses keep their answers precise, we can allow many more members to ask questions.

 

Ms Fionnuala Sheehan:  I described our experience with and opinion of the groceries order. We anticipated the consequences that have materialised since 2006. Between 2004 when the MEAS code of practice was established and 2006, we received no complaints, observed no problems and had no issues brought to our attention in respect of the enforcement of the groceries order as it related to alcohol. We have no experience or knowledge of the problems to which members have referred in this context. However, we anticipated the ensuing problems.

 

As a result of our development and administration of the MEAS code, we have some experience of competition law and the related issues that can arise. We were complained about to the Competition Authority. While the complaint was not upheld, exploring the law and defending ourselves cost us a great deal of money. This is one reason we feel strongly about the need for thorough and full research on minimum pricing. It is being portrayed as an approach that will have no technical problems and will create no legal problems. We are not experts, but our knowledge indicates to us that there would be competition law issues.

 

I am unaware of the level at which the minimum price is to be set and of people’s expectations in this regard. If it is to be set at the levels mooted in Scotland, some 45p sterling for a beer, the price in Ireland would be slightly more than €1. Prices would only increase by a little. There may be some expectation to the effect that minimum pricing might result in people moving away from drinking in the home environment and back to drinking in the pub. This will not happen for two reasons. First, the habit of home drinking that people have formed is entrenched and permanent. Second, the level to which the minimum price would need to be raised so that the on trade could compete with the off trade’s prices and encourage people to return to it would need to be very high. One would wonder about the level of tolerance for such a price.

 

From day 1 MEAS has supported the call for mandatory training in the selling and serving of alcohol. We have been happy to support the voluntary programme. We were part of a broadly based group that examined the question of training and reported approximately three years ago. It was a recommendation from the Sustaining Progress special in

 

Item Type:Dail Debates
Source:Oireachtas
Date:1 December 2011
EndNote:View
Subjects:A Substance use, abuse, and dependence > Prevalence > Problem substance use
L Social psychology and related concepts > Social context > Context encouraging substance use
L Social psychology and related concepts > Availability or accessibility to minors
VA Geographic area > Europe > Ireland
T Demographic characteristics > Underage drinker
MP-MR Policy, planning, economics, work and social services > Substance industry or business
MP-MR Policy, planning, economics, work and social services > Economic aspects of substance use (cost / pricing)
A Substance use, abuse, and dependence > Substance related societal (social) problems > Underage drinking
MP-MR Policy, planning, economics, work and social services > Financial management > Sponsorship
G Health and disease > Substance use disorder > Alcohol use
MP-MR Policy, planning, economics, work and social services > Marketing and public relations (advertising)
L Social psychology and related concepts > Physical context or place > Alcohol beverage sales outlet

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