The same Oireachtas Committee who two weeks ago heard from GAA, Rugby and Soccer leaders that responsibility was the way forward were yesterday told by a group of medical professionals that the damage being wreaked by alcohol was way too serious not to fully implement the recommendations of last year’s report that proposed an outright ban on sporting sponsorship amongst other measures.
They produced figures which showed that alcoholic liver disease had increased by over 200% in the 15-34 and 35-49 categories, part of a dramatic rise in chronic drink related disorders.
The group from the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland were steadfast that public policy needs to take precedence over commercial interests and intimated that the gap in sponsorship would be ‘filled by others.’
It is of course their right and obligation to fight the case for what they believe is right but if this was a simple case of commerce over health there would be no case to answer.
The problem arises, and it is recognised as a problem, that the money which flows into sport each year, both at the headline level of Guinness in GAA or Heineken in Rugby, and at the grassroots level through support for clubs, is a large contributor to the kind of programmes that keep people active in sport, fitter and healthier as a nation.
Similar arguments were made against McDonalds at the time of their sponsorship of the FAI but the reality there is that the money enable an additional 65,000 hours of coaching and sports participation amongst young people.
Sport for Business has long argued that if Government does want to impose a ban that it should back this up with a public policy commitment, backed by funding to support sport to the same level as is done by the alcohol companies.
This would potentially mean an increase in Government funding of sport of somewhere in the region of €30 million per annum.
Could such a sum be considered in the present climate? in reality if it is seen as an investment then yes.
In 2007 the Road Safety Authority was given €31.1 million of public funding to promote road safety. In that year 338 people died from road accidents. Now the number is halved. Nobody would argue that this was money well spent, even from an accounting perspective of the savings in emergency service and hospital costs.
The same level of investment now in sport, as a direct replacement for alcohol sponsorship could produce similar long term benefits for the nation and would be welcomed by those in sport who are not in this is some would paint them as money grabbers looking to take an easy pay cheque from the alcohol groups.
In reality the loss of companies who spend many times that sum on promoting their brand through sport would still be a blow but if sport works as a marketing medium then the likelihood is that it will still be used, no doubt with responsible promotion but without the direct link that evidence presented yesterday suggests is contributing, albeit only in part to a health and a societal crisis.
Sport is too important to have such an important funding stream cut off for what would be a massive social experiment in whether breaking the sponsorship link does in fact lead to better health.
Reports from France suggest that problems from alcohol consumption among the young are rising in France despite a similar ban being imposed there.
If political pressure becomes so much that a ban does come on the legislative agenda here, and there is a strong suggestion that is more and more likely, we need to consider imaginatively how the consequences, whether intended or not can be mitigated so that we do not damage sport, and damage the health of the nation by pushing from one problem of alcohol to another of sedentarism.
If it is merely a financial question then why don’t ministers ask the troika next week whether an additional €30 million per annum for sport as an investment in public health would be such a huge financial barrier as to be impossible.
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