In Ireland, while we continue to advocate for crucial legislative measures to reduce alcohol use and children’s exposure to alcohol marketing to be implemented, we are concerned that our schools-based alcohol education has become the target ground for the corporate interests of industry players.
Across our education system there is a creeping acceptance of a corporate curriculum that facilitates commercial interests to develop and distribute curricular materials. This practice, evident in the school access granted to ‘Drinkaware’, is regrettably, yet a further manifestation of an orthodoxy at the heart of governance that seeks to avoid conflict with commercial interests and aims to resolve them in a public-private partnership. Since 2017, ‘Drinkaware’ has increasingly gained access to many of our post primary schools across the country with its ‘Alcohol Education Programme’.
And, while public policy outlines that it is not appropriate that schools use any materials or resources developed by organisations funded by the alcohol industry, hundreds of teachers and thousands of children are receiving just that. The Department of Education, working with the HSE, has already established a national resource for teachers ‘Know the Score’ aimed at guiding and supporting them to improve their knowledge and strengthen their skills in dealing with the risks associated with alcohol.
The impacts of the commercial determinants of health cannot be erased in such a convenient partnership that allows the alcohol industry adopt the role of solution maker to problems they themselves have largely created and exploit. An alliance of teaching practice with plentiful industry resources may well be efficient for schools, but as Martin Luther King said ‘education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.’
The latest data from the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study (2018) highlights that one in five children entering post-primary schools have had an alcoholic drink, but by the time they sit their junior certificate, four out of ten will have had an alcoholic drink in the last thirty days. In this context, can it be appropriate that an alcohol industry funded organisation is both training our teachers and encouraging an ‘independent decision making about alcohol’ among our children?
And who are ‘Drinkaware’ precisely? Well, today, the Alcohol Awareness Foundation Ireland CLG, is a registered charity and the Irish licence holder of ‘Drinkaware’ a corporate social responsibility (CSR) brand title fashioned in the UK by the alcohol industry in the early noughties. It is also the heir of a previous entity, established in 2002, known as MEAS – Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society, and who had also held the ‘Drinkaware’ device for Ireland from 2006.
In 2016, Alcohol Awareness Foundation Ireland CLG, accepted all of MEAS’s cash reserves and dissolved any immediate connection to Ireland’s alcohol industry, while retaining its status as an alcohol-industry favoured corporate social responsibility organisation.
Since 2002, the Irish alcohol industry has sustained all of these initiatives with a conservatively estimated, €32 million investment. ‘Drinkaware’, widely appreciated in the alcohol industry as a most trusted brand, has enjoyed a €700 million brand investment over the last fourteen years, appearing, as it does, on every advert and promotion for alcohol over that time.
In 2019, ‘Drinkaware’ whose object is ‘the promotion of the responsible consumption of alcohol by adults’ brought further CSR purpose to its charitable deeds by declaring a new proposition as ‘the national charity working to prevent and reduce alcohol misuse’.
As organisations, and registered charities, who consider there is an inherent conflict associated with the alcohol industry playing a role in providing public health advice, we believe this access to our schools, and facilitation of a corporate social responsibility strategy that exposes children to the ambiguous messaging of ‘responsible’ alcohol use, can no longer be acceptable.
If public policy on appropriate alcohol education is to have any meaning it has to be applied. Might our schools’ leadership allow the organisation that advances responsible tobacco use the opportunity to share with our children their philosophy on fostering the personal choices associated with smoking? Rather unlikely, we’d imagine.